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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, September 12, 2005

Chomsky: Neoliberalism as Statism

I just happened on Chomsky's new blog. His old one, Turning the Tide, had been defunct for over a year, and I didn't know he'd relocated. From the Chomsky blog at Znet:
The rules of the game were more or less formalized in the Uruguay round that set up the WTO, in NAFTA, and other such mislabelled “free trade agreements.” They are a mixture of liberalization and protectionism, designed—not surprisingly—in the interests of the designers: mainly MNCs, financial institutions, the investor/lender class generally, the powerful states that cater to their interests, etc. The rights and interests of people are incidental. The extreme protectionism of the WTO and NAFTA goes far beyond earlier forms of protectionism. The outrageous patent principles, for example, designed to grant monopoly pricing privileges to immense private tyrannies, far in the future, and to stifle innovation and development, in their interests.

Concentrated private power strongly resists exposure to market forces, unless it’s confident it can win in the competition. That goes back centuries.... Protectionist devices, such as those of NAFTA and the WTO, are only a fraction of the means by which the wealthy and powerful protect themselves from market forces. In fact, the core of the “new economy” is based on the principle that cost and risk should be socialized, and profit privatized (often after decades in the dynamic state sector).

Chomsky had a big effect on the development of my thought. Many of the most important books I've read on the history of U.S. foreign policy, the early history of capitalism, and the present government role in the corporate system, I was originally referred to by his endnotes in Deterring Democracy or World Orders, Old and New.

And his approach to politics: 1) that you'd expect the policies of a government to reflect the dominant class interests in that society; and 2) that you'd expect the structure of world politics and economics to reflect the class interests controlling the dominant government--seem pretty common-sense to me. As Chomsky says, a neutral observer from Mars would be astonished that people put so much effort into not drawing the obvious conclusion. Contrary to the folks who keep squealing about "blame America first," it only makes sense that when a country is the most powerful in the history of the world, has played the dominant role in shaping global political and economic institutions since 1945, and has probably overthrown more governments than any other country in history, it can take a major share of the responsibility for what's wrong in the world. And Jeanne Kirkpatrick can take her "arsonist vs. fireman" analogy and shove it; the framers of the postwar Pax Americana themselves admitted that their world order would have been substantially the same, even without the USSR as a fly in the ointment. All the USSR did was prevent total consolidation of the "Grand Area," make it a little harder for the World Bank and IMF to run things, and stop the UN Security Council from operating quite as smoothly as a vehicle for American military power.

But what I've never been able to understand is Chomsky's failure to draw the logical conclusions from his own arguments. His books are packed with endless documentation of the ways in which big business externalizes its costs on the taxpayer, and is protected from competition by government. As Chomsky himself said somewhere (one of his by-the-numbers jobs with Barsamian, I think), most of the big corporations would be bankrupt in a few months without corporate welfare. But at the same time, he argues that eliminating government would leave us in the grip of private corporate tyrannies, and that it's necessary to strengthen the state to break up such "private concentrations of power."

Now, if big business can't survive without ongoing state intervention in the economy, why is further state intervention necessary to break corporate power? That makes absolutely no sense to me. If "concentrated private power strongly resists exposure to market forces," then why not rub their noses in it?

As Friedrich Engels put it over a century ago: anarchists say eliminate the state and capital will go to the devil; Marxists say the reverse. Exactly!

Chomsky's position, it seems to me, is essentially Marxian (albeit of the SocDem, not the Leninoid kind): the state has to be used to break the power of the capitalists, before it can be allowed to wither away.

I'm also extremely leery of Chomsky's claim that the state is potentially amenable to popular control. I don't think it's possible, myself. The state is the vehicle of a ruling class; and by the nature of things, a popular majority can't be that ruling class. The reasons were explained decades ago by Robert Michels, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Nomad, among others: regardless of the formally democratic means of control, those on the inside of the state will always have an advantage in interest, attention, information, and agenda control over those they allegedly "represent." Even on Anarres, the libertarian socialist world of LeGuin's The Dispossessed, all those syndicates (made up of recallable delegates from democratic workplaces) wound up rubber-stamping the economic plans of the permanent staffs of experts.

The only way to prevent centralized machinery from being taken over by a ruling class is not to have centralized machinery. The state sometimes responds to intense public pressure, but it cannot be directly or sustainably controlled by the public. Therefore, we should take advantage of whatever mass pressure can be put on the state to roll back its intervention in the economy on behalf of big business, and dismantle the taxing mechanism by which the corporate economy is able to externalize its costs. In an economy of producers' co-ops, worker-controlled large enterprises, family farms and businesses, and voluntary mutual aid associations, all interacting entirely through the free market, there won't be any coercive mechanism to enable big business to profit at the expense of the rest of us.

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Blogger Unknown said...

"The only way to prevent centralized machinery from being taken over by a ruling class is not to have centralized machinery."

I couldn't agree more. I believe that all large institutions, government foremost among them, are inherently flawed and should be treated with great skepticism. It doesn't matter who is at the helm, large institutions can only be controlled by other large instutions, which are in turn controlled by oligarchs. Even if a libertarian by some miracle were elected President(which would never happen), it would make no difference. I've been working on an essay about this subject, and will let you know when it's ready.

For this reason I split with the economic justice group I was working with. They still believe that conventional political activities such as lobbying and party politics will change anything substantial. I have lost that illusion. Nobody can out-lobby or out-politick an oligarch.

September 12, 2005 11:39 AM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...

There is something weird about the phenomenon of celebrity blogs... One good thing about the new Chomsky blog, unlike the old one, is that it seems to allow anybody to comment; the old one allowed only donors to Z to comment (which wasn't exactly in keeping with his egalitarian ideals).

Two not-so-good signs: one of the posts is a rather disconcerting apology for appearing in Hustler magazine, which he describes as "disgusting" and "hideous" and compares to a neo-Nazi magazine (though amusingly, he keeps referring to it as a "journal")—this and many of the comments really show the anti-porn attitude of some of the left. I think he might be interested in this important anti-corporal punishment article that was published in that "journal". And the color scheme of his blog has to be one of the ugliest this side of machinima.com.

Howard Zinn has also, to some degree, done the same thing with regards to state power and corporate capitalism. In his collection Howard Zinn on History, immediately before the essay "Beyond Voting", in which he suggests that voting is bogus and doesn't offer real power over government, he has an essay called "A Little Disquisition on Big Government". He starts off by quoting Bill Clinton's "the era of big government is over", where Clinton is "suggesting that the United States had gone through an unfortunate phase that was now ended"—and then proceeds to show that for most of US history state power was used to advanced privileged interests, such as enforcing slavery and bailing out corporations; one might be tempted to conclude that this was indeed "an unfortunate phase". However, Zinn goes on to say how this all changed with the advent of the New Deal and Great Society programs, to which all anti-"big government" feeling is supposedly a reaction, so he's confident in concluding that "In short, we want everyone to be ... beneficiaries of big, benevolent government" and that "big government ... is here to stay", so we might as well use it for our purposes.

Indeed, despite the sort of state desired being far milder, it's long seemed to me that the social-democratic attitude of "strengthen the state in the short run to defeat it in the long run" is no more coherent than the Leninist one—and does no more to support the growth of self-reliance and mutualist alternatives.

September 12, 2005 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read a bunch of Chomsky and I've really only seen him say that once. He used to be an anarcho-syndicalist, but has become taken a more "let a thousand flowers bloom" attitude in his old age. I don't think he's exactly a social-democrat or Leninist - no reason to mean, after all. He himself has written extensively on the failures of social democrats and Leninists. In fact, he usually uses "Leninist" as an insult.

To answer your question, colorless green ideas, capital couldn't fill the void of the state because the state is a tool of capital. The owning class owns because the state grants it the power to own.

September 12, 2005 1:06 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Although this overlaps somewhat with what Sparrow said, there would have to be a full-blown, central apparatus exercising a monopoly of force over a geographic area, in order for most big business to survive. That's the only kind of entity that can effectively externalize costs on an entire population.

Zinn's view of the New Deal/Great Society overlooks a great deal of "corporate liberal" criticism by the New Left. And at times, Chomsky and Zinn refer to such analysis, which causes me to suspect some kind of double-think is at work here.

September 12, 2005 2:00 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

In so far as his endorsement of the state as a contraption for devolving capitalism he's pointed to popular fronts ('if we were a democratic country like Brazil', other similar comments) where you have large populist coalitions that enter politics to try and get the state to tolerate dual power organizations: e.g. legalizing land 'invasions' and worker takeovers of factories, etc., as has occurred of late in Latin America.

So far as I agree with him I can't imagine erradicating social programs and regulations like SS/medicaid/the EPA(?) until they have functioning replacements, perhaps just as well devolved from those institutions as created seperately, where you have to wipe out corporate subsidies/regulations/most of the Pentagon system just to make room for the alternatives.

The Latin American populist governments are constrained primarily by the "international" institutions run by the West, whereas the West's options, Chomsky would say, are pretty much constrained only by elite propaganda and public tolerance of state violence against the Public Enemies created by the same.

September 12, 2005 7:51 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I don't think CHomsky sees state action as the answer, more popular action v. the satate, and any increase of popular involvement in state/public action as an encroachment on the state/elite axis.

He does, for instance, favour conscription over 'voluntary' i.e. mercenary armies, because they are more difficult for elites to control.

Obviously, this is a challenge to the idea of the state in its current form of liberal democracy. Obviously, if we agree that some centralised features are necessary - public health springs to mind, as does transport, then we will need centralised authorities to deal with them. If we have adequate direct democratic control, with free press and information, we will be able to control them.

As a socialist I do consider that removing the state and its military forces from the hands of the capitalist class is an essential prerequisite of abolishing the wages system, else they'll drown our revolution in a sea of blood. Democracy is our shield.

September 13, 2005 12:28 AM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

Like you, Kevin, I find a lot to value in Chomsky, and have been a "fan" of his for many years (a la SEK3). Same with Zinn. But I am always puzzled that they both refuse to push through to the inevitable conclusion that yes, corporatism must be smashed, but the State, the "power tool" that makes corporatism possible, must be smashed, as well. Chomsky and Zinn both seem to believe in utopian "good government." If only, they dream, government could be used for good, not evil. Well, it can't be used for "good," whatever that is. It's not in the State's nature.

September 13, 2005 7:32 AM  
Blogger buermann said...

"If only, they dream, government could be used for good, not evil."

Well, ok, what's the argument for, say, social security doing more "evil" than "good"?

At worst it puts unnecessary burdens on the working poor that could be easily rectified by any remotely democratic society interested in doing so: replacing the ceiling on the taxes with a floor. Would we prefer to erradicate it and let seniors pish their last years away with no assistance at all, or do we keep it around until we have something(s) capable of providing a similar policy on a more voluntary basis?

September 13, 2005 8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christ, Chomsky talks in his article about visitors from Mars not understanding missing the obvious conclusion, and these comments reflect this perfectly.

Let me make it clear: Chomsky prefers to strengthen the state because he wants to run it. Only Chomsky and people like him are wise and good enough to handle the awesome power of the state, as opposed to all those corrupt, venal, evil capitalists. He has the very best, even saintly intentions, if only he had the power.

- Josh

September 13, 2005 2:28 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

"Chomsky prefers to strengthen the state because he wants to run it. ... He has the very best, even saintly intentions, if only he had the power."

As can be observed by his constant contests for power on the campaign trail kissing babies, tirelessly working the haloed halls of K-Street, constantly scooting around the globe setting his zombie minions in order, his feckless pronouncements that only he knows the sure path to the society of the future, like:

I have no confidence in my own views about the "right way," and am unimpressed with the confident pronouncements of others, including good friends. I feel that far too little is understood to be able to say very much with any confidence.

And similarly authoritarian claims to the omnipotent sainthood of the vanguard.

September 13, 2005 10:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I don't have any problem with bringing state agencies under the control of grass-roots organizations, as a step toward devolving them into cooperatively-owned, voluntary associations. But I don't see how such devolution of the state requires strengthening it. When existing corporations get most of their profit from the state (and I figure that means pretty much the entire Fortune 500, at least), they should be treated as unowned and "homesteaded" by their workers. Where the state already operates services like a national health or public utilities, I think it probably makes more sense to devolve them to local control and eventually operate them on a voluntary user-fee basis--that means bringing them under the control of activist organizations, rather than supplanting them with grass-roots organizations built from scratch. But this process would be a simulataneous roll-back of the corporate and state system, not a strengthening of the state.

And I don't think that by saying it's not in the State's nature to be used for good, Wally was denying that certain state activities may produce benefits for a majority. But the net evil effects outweigh the specific good. You can't have Social Security without having a coercive state apparatus with taxing power. And once you have such an apparatus, it's inevitable that it will be used for the benefit of the powerful interests that control it.

I don't think there's any denying that the New Deal social programs had an ameliorative effect for the harsh conditions faced by some out groups, and perhaps made capitalism more bearable for a working majority.

But the program was adopted by the ruling class to make the system more bearable in the interest of stability, for its own ends. And it had the net effect of making the system more stable, and making exploitation more secure in the long term. And on a more particular level, it had the effect of crowding out or preempting voluntary organization for mutual aid, as did the welfare state more generally (see Colin Ward's work on this subject). As somebody pointed out recently on the Any Time Now yahoogroup, before Saskatchewan decided to go along with Medicare, there were about four dozen community clinics and cooperative health organizations in that province; Medicare drove them out of existence, and replaced them with a program subject to central direction as a tool of social control.

I wouldn't deny the temporal benefits Dr. Faustus received from his bargain with the devil, but in the end he had to pay a great price for them. The TANSTAAFL principle applies on a very large scale.

September 14, 2005 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's not on the campaign trail because no one would vote for him or take him seriously (and rightfully so). That said, his criticisms of the state centre around the fact that the right kind of murderers and thieves aren't in charge: his.

- Josh

September 14, 2005 10:34 AM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...

See also this recent post in which Chomsky is dismissive of the free market.

September 14, 2005 5:45 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

re: the "free market", he puts the scare quotes around it for a reason, referring to existing state-capitalist markets. And it's not like free markets are the only voluntary form of association, or necessarily the best way to go about everything.

Kevin: he's talking about a particular tactic and not some long term objective. E.g. his example case of the MST aligning itself with a labor government as a shield against the private armies that were slaughtering them, "strengthening" the state in the sense of using a national army to control lawless mercenary thugs that were operating in the state's absence.

Nor is he talking about putting people's movements under the control of some technocratic socdem bureaucrat. He's routinely critical of technocratic socdems who usurp control of popular movements, so I don't know why somebody would think that that's what he's advocating when he points to the MST as having strengthened the state for some particular immediate purpose, like not being shot.

It's as though you're saying defending the bill of rights - something we've got because the "state sometimes responds to intense public pressure" - would be a statist position, rather than an anti-statist position given the immediate alternatives.

re: medicare etc., I don't know that there's a serious disagreement about the objective here, I'm just talking about what we ought to do first, which would be to cut the corporate sector's pension checks before granddad's. Medicare tells granddad where and how to allocate his benefit, which I think is the more immediate problem than the benefit itself, even if coercive taxing power is at the root of it.

And I'm looking forward to reading Colin Ward; I'm in the middle of David Noble and have a bit of a backlog of stuff to get through first.

September 14, 2005 8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are several ways of eliminating corporations once the time comes. Make them last for the phasing out of taxes, so that at some point they will be competing with partnerships with liability limited by whatever laying off they can contract. Do a seize and leaseback of operating assets on necessary utilities, so that municipalities have ownership and the company is merely a management unit. And do progressive buyouts of shares, transferring them to transitional funds. All the while, subject corporations to some variant of a Statute of Mortmain, with breaches punishable by fines payable to subsidise the municipalities. But this actually raises new quaestions about the new arrangements, for which space does not permit a proper answ

September 14, 2005 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but can you tell me where Chomsky actually writes about wanting a stronger government? I would like to read that.

August 01, 2011 1:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

“In the long term, I think the centralized political power ought to be eliminated and dissolved and turned down ultimately to the local level, finally, with federalism and associations and so on. On the other hand, right now, I’d like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power that are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised.

"There’s only one way of defending rights that have been attained, or of extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that’s to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsible to the public and which the public can indeed influence.”

— You Say You Want a Devolution

August 01, 2011 10:44 AM  

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