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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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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Noam Chomsky, Anarcho-Hamiltonian

Take the US. In 1750… it was one of the richest societies on earth, but it was, of course, pre-industrial. If it had pursued its comparative advantage in accordance with market principles, it would now be exporting fish, fur, agricultural products, etc.

Um, no, if it had pursued its comparative advantage in accordance with neoliberal principles, it would now be exporting fish, fur, agricultural products, etc.

Instead, it industrialized, but not by adherence to market principles. Rather, by radical violation of these principles consciously undertaken to change its comparative advantage (otherwise known as development).

But it was development in the direction of large-scale, export-oriented industry, with a generally centralist model of economic organization, and labor relations I suspect Chomsky wouldn't be too happy with.

He completely ignores a third possibility: decentralized, bottom-up development, with improved technology integrated into small-scale local economic organization.

High tariffs, subsidized internal improvements, and all that other Federalist-Whig nonsense, were not "progressive." Apparently Henry Clay was Chomsky's beau ideal of a statesman.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He completely ignores a third possibility: decentralized, bottom-up development...

that's because he knows his history; that wasn't ever a real possibility.

August 10, 2006 12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin seems to be confusing Chomsky's comments on what *did* happen with support for it. That is not the case.

Chomsky is making the obvious point that America (like all countries) industrialised by means of the state. Neo-liberalism is seeking to stop that option to other states, to lock them into a specific role in the world economy.

In other words, Chomsky is exposing the hypocrisy of neo-liberalism. I do not think its fair to suggest that Chomsky supports capitalist development.

August 10, 2006 2:25 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


If Chomsky had simply said that the neoliberal rhetoric of the developed countries, or pointed that the U.S., Germany, Japan et al had developed through state capitalism, or mentioned that Britain industrialized by state capitalism and then partially switched to liberalism when its ruling class didn't need state intervention, I would have completely agreed. The "OK, no more state intervention, starting.... NOW!" ruse is pretty transparent.

But he said a lot more than that. He strongly implied, if not asserted, that the only alternative to that model was the neoliberal model of development currently being pushed off on the TW.


I disagree. I believe that bottom-up model of development is what would have naturally occurred in the West if enclosures and assorted other statist atrocities hadn't happened. And it would be a perfectly viable model for Third World development if it weren't thwarted by an unholy alliance of corporate mercantilists, landed oligarchies, and state socialist bureaucrats.

If that model of development wasn't "a possibility," it's because the structure of power stood in its way. That means we ought to be fighting that structure today so that it doesn't stand in the way of creating that kind of economy.

August 10, 2006 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I believe that bottom-up model of development is what would have naturally occurred in the West if enclosures and assorted other statist atrocities hadn't happened."

Agreed, Kevin. To assert that bottom up development is impossible confers a false sense of legitimacy on the oppressors. One can imagine their plea for understanding: "Oh, sure -- we starved you, blew your brains out, imprisoned you, stole from you and called it 'law', cheated you by meanms of political privileges and called it a 'free market', drove you like slaves and sometimes as slaves, hung you before courts and made you slaughter and be slaughtered in wars... BUT IT WAS ALL FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!"

The whole point of economic justice movements of any sort is that many economic relations which the elite paint as symbiotic are in fact parasitic.

"If it had pursued its comparative advantage in accordance with market principles, it would now be exporting fish, fur, agricultural products, etc."

He certainly did strongly imply that.

August 10, 2006 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But, Kevin, you are assuming people wanted to industrialise their economy in 18th and 19th century America. They may have been extremely happy "exporting fish, fur, agricultural products, etc."

From what I've read of the rise of industry, most people did *not* want to work in factories. Extensive state action was needed to drive them from the land or keep them off it. Why assume that they would want to build factories? Spooner did not, for example.

As for the notion of alternative modes of development, that is dependent on the social-political structure. As I'm sure that Chomsky is aware. He is talking about actual events rather than alternative histories.

So I do feel it is unfair to attack Chomsky on this matter given that he is talking about *actual* history. I'm sure if you asked him about alternative means of development he would have said it could be worker managed, like industry itself.

As such, it is *not* a case of "strongly implied, if not asserted" -- Kevin *inferred* (and strongly *asserted*) that this was Chomsky's position. Personally, I think Kevin is reading *far* too much into Chomsky's comments, comments which really do *not* imply what Kevin asserts they do.

Chomsky should be criticised when he is wrong, but Kevin is attacking him here for positions Kevin infers, not what Chomsky says or implies.

August 11, 2006 1:47 AM  
Blogger buermann said...

"He strongly implied, if not asserted, that the only alternative to [the state-capitalist] model was the neoliberal model of development currently being pushed off on the TW"

It's the only existing model that he has at hand to really point to. I remember a talk I heard where this came up and somebody called him on this same thing, and he responded with something to the effect of 'well, we could have a seminar and I could tell you all about how I think we ought to persue development, and we could get all heady and abstracted, but that's not the point of this talk'.

And it never is.

August 11, 2006 4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not surprising that the lying, thieving mutualists would turn on one of their own...

August 11, 2006 7:13 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I've seen that very argument used by apologists for enclosures. I wonder how they feel about Kelo.

Anon and Buermann,

At least in what his actual statement, Chomsky said that if the U.S. had not followed the state capitalist model of development, it would have become the kind of resource-exporting backwater the neoliberals prefer in the Third World. He may have had mental reservations about some form of decentralized development, but he didn't express them. And when I've attempted to discuss such questions of logic with Chomsky in the past, he has tended to become less nuanced than his public statements, not more.

Lawrence Krubner,

Thanks. Nice to see another fan of Christopher Hill. You might like Cosmonaut Keep, the first of Ken Macleod's Engines of Light novels. It's set in a fictional universe that reads like Hill.

August 12, 2006 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1750s, the US was not one of the richest societies on earth; it did not even exist. This is not a quibble. The situation of the colonies was very much affected by their economic handling within the British Empire. Mercantilism meant that Virginian tobacco was favoured, not just over the most efficient supply (from within the Ottoman Empire, as it happens), but also over production in Gloucestershire that would have outcompeted it.

There was also an inflow of currency from British military spending in the colonies. Part of the reason for taxing the colonies after the 1760s was to recover the debt incurred on their behalf, and part of the underlying worry for the colonies was that this would drain currency out and cause a depression (in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", Heinlein represents this allegorically as an outflow of a stock of water).

This concern was in fact addressed by the British, and also paper bills supported by tobacco kept their value unlike the other paper currency the colonies wanted to issue.

The development the USA did consciously mostly didn't pay off. One development that did was the Erie Canal - probably because that diverted the growing Great Lakes trade from Montreal to New York. That means, there probably wasn't a net gain but rather an increase in US wealth.

Most such internal improvements were at the expense of other parts of the USA - like Buffalo's improvements to attract the canal terminus away from another nearby town, which slumped as a result.

It may be that Chomsky and some of the commenters around here are suggesting that that level of development wouldn't have happened without intervention.

That is also probably correct - but one of the Anonymi's remarks and my own understanding suggest that that level was too much for comfort. That is, a bottom up course would indeed have stopped at a lower level - but that would actually have been an optimum level for the times.

Another thing complicates matters. Much of the capital that went into US development was from Europe (not just Britain). This capital was lost to Europeans by repudiations and changes of the rules - realised sovereign risk. I've even heard it suggested that this capital inflow exceeded all of Marshall Aid later. To that extent, US intervention did indeed make locals better off, at least at first, by preying on outsiders.

But then the locals often found themselves undercapitalised and the resources were transferred to local large institutions, so they suffered in their turn. People might like to read up on the back story of Billy the Kid, how his former non-US employer was driven out and Billy (like many unchronicled others) found himself cast adrift.

Britain did not industrialise by state capitalism. That is, for a long time landed interests dominated and in fact discouraged that (remember the mercantilism?). What did happen was, economic shocks from Indian revenues and then - much more significant - from the Napoleonic Wars.

These moved things like mechanised textile production and steam locomotion past a tipping point. This combined fortuitously with British resources in the form of ports, market power after 1815 (partly due to European direct costs from the wars), and ready supplies of coal.

August 12, 2006 11:31 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

"when I've attempted to discuss such questions of logic with Chomsky in the past, he has tended to become less nuanced than his public statements"

Exactly: he doesn't talk about it, and doesn't appear to want to outside the vaguest of generalities.

August 16, 2006 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If my interpretation were the same as yours, I think I would be pretty outraged.

But in my opinion, you have taken this quotation out of context. All I had to do was click on the link at the top and read the rest of what he said in the source. It left me at a total loss as to how you could view Chomsky's statement as an endorsement of the neoliberal US industrial development policy. What seems clear to me is that he is showing that the policies pursued by the United States in order to energize its internal development, of which agricultural slavery was the keystone, constituted an unfair advantage that was beneficial to business but negated the human and property rights of many individuals. He does not excuse this model. In fact his point is to show how the horrors of contemporary third world development policy arose out of the US model, which was in turn based largely on the imperial models of Europe, as I'm sure you are aware. The people and the society of the United States could have benefited from a future of "furs and fish" and could have evolved into a commensurate role on the global economic stage (read: Canada) but this does not encourage the rapid and overwhelming development of broad industrial enterprise, not to the extent of the US model or anything near it. The price for that is paid by the people, and this is the same price today being levied by multinational corporations upon third world societies.

Put far more simply, he is showing that the US was once a third world country and that the development model being imposed on the peoples of the third world today are analogous to the development paradigms--neoliberal paradigms-- enforced by the US government in the 19th Century, through the Industrial Revolution proper.

It was good for business and good for government. He does not claim that makes it good. The people paid the price, and still do, here and everywhere else.

One should be careful in espousing blanket terms involving the words "liberal" and "conservative" to label and barter ideas. Sometimes it obscures rational thought about underlying principles.

August 20, 2006 6:52 PM  

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