Saturday, April 15, 2006

Noam Chomsky's "Libertarian Socialism."

In a great Woody Allen story, an intellectual escort service promises to "send over a couple of blondes to explain Noam Chomsky to you." If only they were plus-size models, I might take them up on the offer.

Noam Chomsky is an intellectual hero. He is fearless in confronting power, whether one agrees with him or not, you can only feel admiration for Chomsky's integrity and courage.

I will seek to explain a little of Chomsky here, free of charge, as I chat about Chomsky's popular discussion of "government for the future." I am not a natural blond. However, in the right circumstances, I can be a blond.

Yesterday was a slow day, so I read two books: Chomsky's Government in the Future (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), which originally appeared in 1970, and L. William Countryman's, Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005).

There are few people who would associate these two texts. I believe they are complimentary. Yes, I have read Herbert Marcuse. Chomsky's concern in his essay is with distinguishing between three contemporary forms of government, stating a preference between them, while suggesting a direction for government in the future. Chomsky demonstrates that ideas and systems "evolve" -- kind of like us -- from one form into another, so as to adapt to changes in the intellectual and material environment.

What is the role of the state in an advanced industrial society? To answer that question, I think it's useful to set up as a framework for discussion four somewhat idealized positions. I want to call these positions, first, classical liberal, second, libertarian socialist, third, state socialist, fourth, state capitalist. ... I think that the libertarian socialist concepts -- and by that I mean a range of thinking that extends from Left wing Marxism through anarchism -- are fundamentally correct and that they are the proper and natural extensions of classical liberalism into the current era of advanced industrial society.

I am not inclined to base my political position on Marxism. Nonetheless, I certainly recognize that there is much valuable wisdom in the Marxist tradition of thought on matters of politics and government. For me, as a democratic socialist -- located pretty much in the same territory as Chomsky on the political map -- the basis of political ethics (or any other kind of ethics) is love.

Love is a troublesome word and phenomenon in human life, one which (I believe) includes the ideas of freedom and equality. Love is only possible for free persons, as equals, so that an ethic of love -- grounded in Western religious traditions or in secular ethical thought -- immediately implies a set of political values aiming at social justice, especially with regard to the distribution of material resources. A great philosopher who develops these ideas (as a Conservative) is John MacMurray. For the boys in the smoke-filled rooms, I am saying that wealth and power should be more evenly distributed in society. I sense a productive tension in Chomsky's politics between his anarchism and Marxist-influenced socialism, a tension which is explored in his other writings more than in this essay.

In other words, beyond a Kantian setting of limits or duties owed to others, i.e., "don't murder people," there is the problem of how our affirmative actions -- especially on a legal and political level -- are to be guided. I think Jeffersonian insights, building on an ethics of love and compassion, are inescapable in thinking through these issues. I was surprised that Jefferson is not mentioned by Chomsky in this work. Yes, Jefferson wanted small government for gentlemen farmers, but he wanted equal power in the hands of individuals -- which today includes all of us -- as against government, with an insistence on "generosity to the poor."

Similar insights may also be drawn from Chomsky's own Jewish tradition, notably from the kaballistic Marxism of Ernst Bloch. Not surprisingly, Chomsky mentions an Israeli kibbutz (p.21.) to illustrate notions of community and the plausibility of anarchist ideas. Chomsky recognizes and defends the importance of individual freedom as a foundational value in modern thinking about politics and the state. Yet he asks us to consider what the emergence of international conglomerate capitalism has done to Enlightenment notions of liberty (he quotes Humboldt) understood as "nonintervention by the state." This would be Chomsky's response to Jefferson. Chomsky is duly wary of power (pp. 38-39, discussing Kant) and is not holding, say, 1970 Bulgaria up to the reader, as a model of good government for us.

"Take the most radical of revolutionaries and place him on the throne of all the Russias or give him dictatorial powers ... and before the year is out he will be worse than the Czar himself." (Chomsky quoting Bakunin, p. 33.)

Chomsky is certainly right that, given the reality of human needs in our world, only a form of socialism (providing some allowance for individual incentive and profit) that is respectful of civil liberties can hope to satisfy those needs for the vast majority of people. Many conservatives agree on the freedom part of his analysis, but reserve compassion for the exercise of private conscience by individuals (Jefferson's response to Chomsky).

"By giving the government too much power," conservatives say, "we will only get less freedom and no greater social justice, just lots of corruption." New Jersey is the best example of the potential for abuse by government and politicians in a free society. I respect these conservative concerns. Nevertheless, I think that Chomsky is right to conclude:

... human needs ... to an ever more critical degree can be expressed only in collective terms. It is surely conceivable and is perhaps even likely that decisions made by the collective itself will reflect these needs and interests as well as those made by various soulful elites.

In any event, it is a bit difficult to take seriously arguments about efficiency in a society that devotes enormous resources to waste and destruction. As everyone knows, the very concept of efficiency is dripping with ideology. Maximization of commodities is hardly the only measure of a decent existence. (pp. 44-45.)

Beyond "maximization of commodities" is the SPIRITUAL need for love in human life, friendship and community are derivative from it. This idea of love is no wishy-washy emotion, but a force that can topple governments. To trivialize or be dismissive of it is foolish. Theologian and Episcopal priest, Professor Countryman points out something even atheists can accept:

God's passion for us and for the whole of creation is what summons us to a comparable passion. And that passion must necessarily work itself out in our behavior with and towards the beloved. ... [But also towards all others.] The drive towards connection is fundamental to our humanity. The specifically sexual forms of eros are an important subcategory of it, not the whole. We tend to assume that the story of God's forming of Eve from Adam's side is about the creation of sexual companionship. But in the twelfth century, Aelred of Rievaulx read it as being about the creation of friendship and of community. In fact, he treated it as the origin of monastic community. Our tendency to separate sexual eros from the broader eros that generates such connections seems to me misplaced. (pp. 37-38.)

The following quotation is not from the writings of Karl Marx, but from the work of Christian philosopher John Finnis:

... beyond a reasonable measure and degree of such use for his or his dependents or co-owners' needs, [the capitalist] holds the remainder of his property and its fruits as part (in justice, if not in law) of the common stock. In other words, beyond a certain point, what was commonly available but was justly made private, for the common good, becomes again, in justice, part of the common stock ...

See, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarenden, 1980), pp. 172-173; Roberto Unger's work ("the theory of organic groups") may be quoted, or Cornel West's writings. Wealth is not good or evil; the uses to which wealth is put that determines its moral quality. Please study the arguments in John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard: 1971).

Liberals and socialists do not have to shy away from discussions of spirituality in public life. They should not deny the importance of values in a public square that remains neutral with respect to the various religions, while welcoming spiritual values as belonging in the ethical and political conversation of our times, especially when it comes to defining the good life. Our spiritual or religious values may be liberal, not fundamentalist values. I remember Mario Cuomo's eloquence on this subject in the early eighties.

In a new dialogue on the life of spirit, including the variety and equal value of eros for persons (regardless of sexual orientation), and in the call to compassionate citizenship in a continuing revolutionary struggle against poverty, we socialists and liberals still have much to contribute and accomplish.

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