What Kind of Creatures are We? by Noam Chomsky, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016 (Chapter 3: What is the common good?)

Now that the fragile version of American democracy is imperiled through inattention, demagoguery and oligarchy, Noam Chomsky’s new book about human life presents some interesting, even arresting, ideas about the nature, goals and legitimate forms of organized government. Chomsky, always radical, comes out in favor of socialist anarchism, a doctrine directly descended from the tenets of classical Enlightenment liberalism, developed through the thought of Mill and von Humboldt, filtered by Marx and Engels, and fully expressed by the early twentieth century anarchist thinker Rudolph Rocker whose works assembled a number of strands and threads of syndicalist philosophy that ultimately came to be called “libertarian socialism.”

Although Chomsky’s book concerns itself with densely tangled issues of language, reality and “mystery in philosophy”, the section titled “What is the common good?” offers us a delightful analysis of a forgotten strand of Western thought that figured prominently in discussions of practical solutions to the “capitalist” nightmare in the 1930’s, particularly in the Spanish Republican movement. According to Chomsky’s view, libertarian socialism is a direct descendent of Mill’s classic “On Liberty”, a tract that argued in favor of the general and “grand principle” of the importance of human development in its richest diversity. As argued by von Humboldt, any institutions that constrain such human development are illegitimate, unless they can somehow justify themselves. One such constraint, pointed out by Adam Smith, was “employment” and the division of labor, by which men are necessarily formed—or, deformed. It follows that concern for the common good should impel us “to find ways to overcome the devilish impact of these disastrous policies (the system of capitalist exploitation) from the educational system to the conditions of work, providing opportunities to exert the understanding and cultivate human development in its richest diversity.”

The challenge presented by such argument is to government institutions in general: Justify yourself in terms of human development and creativity or be opposed by free men. Classical liberalism eighteenth century style foundered on the shoals of capitalism, negating the “free unfolding of all the individual and social forces of life.” And what is libertarian socialism (anarchism)? Anarchism seeks to “free labor from economic exploitation and to free society from ecclesiastical or political guardianship, thereby opening the way to an alliance of free groups of men and women based on cooperative labor and planned administration of things in the interest of the community.”

Throughout history, the rich have created hierarchies of power in order to enhance and defend their own interests in those same structures.   The “red bureaucracy” of communism, the non-democratic parliaments of the so-called Western democracies, as well as various forms of authoritarianism here and there, all conspire to stifle human development and freedom, something obvious to everyone. Class rule, sometimes fairly subtle, these days takes on the form of explicit disenfranchisement, exploitation and outright domination. These days, the words of old labor activists ring clear: “..the spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.”

The solution to the problem of democracy—how to keep the rabble at bay, was solved by limiting democracy. Hence, we live in an undemocratic state where the Senate, the Electoral College, gerrymandering of Congressional districts, the influence of “Big Money”, voter suppression and other such devices, make truly democratic elections and processes utterly impossible. On the contrary, the entire edifice supports the “aristocratic” class.  For Chomsky, libertarian socialism, or syndicalist anarchism, is the path towards a freely chosen future. Its “political impossibility” is manifest.  Whatever—Chomsky’s little chapter in a difficult book is a beautiful political essay, worth seeking out and pondering in these times of travail.