17 October 2003 **** Front Page

Recapturing the libertarian dream

By Tapani Lausti

Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy & Education. Edited by C.P. Otero. RoutledgeFarmer 2003.

It is commonly claimed and widely believed that there is no alternative to modern capitalist societies. To understand the weakness of this claim it is helpful to see how these societies emerged. It is possible to show that they are not the results of some inescapable historical process. Noam Chomsky quotes recent research which shows that "modern America was created over the protests of its working people". (p. 29) American society was deliberately pushed to serve private power and degrade everyday life of ordinary people into mindless wage slavery.

Just as modern America has finally realised that the country was founded on the genocide of the indigenous population, the realisation is slowly emerging that also the country's real democratic potential was destroyed by private greed. This development was clearly understood by contemporary classical democrats: "So Thomas Jefferson in 1816 expressed his fear that 'the country was moving toward a single and splendid government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions and monied incorporations'." (p. 241)

Earlier classical liberals had feared that the emerging joint stock companies would signal the rise of corporations over human beings, a development that came true in the nineteenth century. Chomsky writes "that classical liberal ideas — in their essence, though not in the way they developed — are profoundly anti-capitalist. The essence of these ideas must be destroyed for them to serve as an ideology of modern industrial capitalism." (p. 128)

How distant these ideas now seem after centuries of elitist propaganda. Chomsky writes: "The fundamental libertarian principles — which (...) were even common coin among the general population, let alone libertarian thinkers — now sound very exotic and extreme." (p. 244)

However, the libertarian dream is not dead. Strangely enough, perhaps, we find it alive amongst the most oppressed people of the Americas: "[U]nlike us they retain a vibrant tradition of liberty and democracy, a tradition that we have allowed to slip out of our hands or simply be stolen from us. Unless people here and in other rich and privileged societies can recapture and revitalize that tradition, the prospects for democracy are indeed dim." (p. 259)

(As I am writing these lines, reports are coming from Bolivia where anti-government demonstrators are "demanding an end to 511 years of looting, exploitation, and political domination. They insist on becoming the beneficiaries of their labor, on taking the political decisions that affect their lives and exercising sovereignty over natural resources." See Forrest Hylton, Bolivia: Aymara Rebellion And Democratic Dictatorship, ZNet, 13 October 2003)

Chomsky has always agreed that the United States is the most free society in the world. However, it carries within it the curse of huge corporate interests. The elite which guards these increasingly global interests has shown utter ruthlessness in its methods: "[T]hese leaders regard the world as an American preserve, to be governed and organized in accordance with superior American wisdom, and to be controlled, if necessary, by American power." (p. 263)

The last lines were written in 1966. At the time Chomsky was already criticising the role of the intellectuals in bolstering elite power instead of challenging it. Fast forward to the early 90s, and we find him deploring how many left intellectuals announce "that the 'project of the Enlightenment' is dead [and] that we must abandon the 'illusions' of science and rationality — a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use". (p. 96)

Chomsky is also critical of how the social sciences in American universities have been allowed to serve corporate interests: "The university should be a center for radical social inquiry, as it is already a center for what might be called radical inquiry in the pure sciences." (p. 192)

He reminds the reader that in the pure sciences it is normal to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. In social sciences it is more difficult to point out democratic deficiencies and try to find out ways to advance a more just and humane social order. Radical questioning is encouraged in pure sciences but discouraged in social sciences. As Chomsky puts it: [I]n the domain of social criticism the normal attitudes of a scientist are feared and deplored as a form of subversion or as dangerous radicalism." (p. 176)

Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, US policies, Social thinking


[home] [archive] [focus]