Versions of Freedom: Goals and Visions, Noam Chomsky

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Author: Noam Chomsky in Versions of Freedom, 1996, Visions of Freedom Collective (eds)
Originally Published: 1996
Obtained from: Archive.org.

Goals and Visions
Noam Chomsky
In referring to goals and visions, I have in mind a practical rather than a very principled distinction. As is usual in human affairs, it is the practical perspective that matters most. Such theoretical understanding as we have is far too thin to carry much weight.

By visions, I mean the conception of a future society that animates what we actually do, a society in which a decent human being might want to live. By goals, I mean the choices and tasks that are within reach, that we will pursue one way or another guided by a vision that may be distant and hazy.

An animating vision must rest on some conception of human nature, of what’s good for people, of their needs and rights, of the aspects of their nature that should be nurtured, encouraged and permitted to flourish for their benefit and that of others. The concept of human nature that underlies our visions is usually tacit and inchoate, but it is always there, perhaps implicitly, whether one chooses to leave things as they are and cultivate one’s own garden, or to work for small changes, or for revolutionary ones.

This much, at least, is true of people who regard themselves as moral agents, not monsters—who care about the effects of what they do or fail to do.

On all such matters, our knowledge and understanding are shallow; as in virtually every area of human life, we proceed on the basis of intuition and experience, hopes and fears. Goals involve hard choices with very serious human consequences. We adopt them on the basis of imperfect evidence and limited understanding, and though our visions can and should be a guide, they are at best a very partial one. They are not clear, nor are they stable, at least for people who care about the consequences of their acts. Sensible people will look forward to a clearer articulation of their animating visions and to the critical evaluation of them in the light of reason and experience. So far, the substance is pretty meager, and there are no signs of any change in that state of affairs. Slogans are easy, but not very helpful when real choices have to be made.

Goals and visions can appear to be in conflict, and often are. There’s no contradiction in that, as I think we all know from ordinary experience. Let me take my own case, to illustrate what I have in mind.

My personal visions are fairly traditional anarchist ones, with origins in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. Before proceeding, I have to clarify what I mean by that. I do not mean the version of classical liberalism that has been reconstructed for ideological purposes, but the original, before it was broken on the rocks of rising industrial capitalism, as Rudolf Rocker put it in his work on anarchosyndicalism 60 years ago—rather accurately, I think.

{Rocker, Anarchosyndicalism (Secker & Warburg, 1938); “Anarchism and Anarchosyndicalism,” appended essay in P. Eltzbacher (Freedom press, 1960).}

As state capitalism developed into the modern era, economic, political and ideological systems have increasingly been taken over by vast institutions of private tyranny that are about as close to the totalitarian ideal as any that humans have so far constructed. “Within the corporation,” political economist Robert Brady wrote half a century ago, “all policies emanate from the control above. In the union of this power to determine policy with the execution thereof, all authority necessarily proceeds from the top to the bottom and all responsibility from the bottom to the top. This is, of course, the inverse of `democratic’ control; it follows the structural conditions of dictatorial power.” “What in political circles would be called legislative, executive, and judicial powers” is gathered in “controlling hands” which, “so far as policy formulation and execution are concerned, are found at the peak of the pyramid and are manipulated without significant check from its base.” As private power “grows and expands,” it is transformed “into a community force ever more politically potent and politically conscious,” ever more dedicated to a “propaganda program” that “becomes a matter of converting the public…to the point of view of the control pyramid.” That project, already substantial in the period Brady reviewed, reached an awesome scale a few years later as American business sought to beat back the social democratic currents of the postwar world, which reached the United States as well, and to win what its leaders called “the everlasting battle for the minds of men,” using the huge resources of the Public Relations industry, the entertainment industry, the corporate media, and whatever else could be mobilized by the “control pyramids” of the social and economic order. These are crucially important features of the modern world, as is dramatically revealed by the few careful studies.{Brady, Business as a System of Power (Columbia, 1943). On corporate propaganda, see particularly the pioneering work of Alex Carey, some now collected in his Taking the Risk out of Democracy (UNSW, 1995); and on postwar America, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: the Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960 (U. of Illinois press, 1995), the first American academic study of the general topic. See also William Puette, Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor (Cornell U. press, 1992); William Solomon and Robert McChesney, eds., New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History (Minnesota, 1993); McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media & Democracy (Oxford, 1993).}

The “banking institutions and moneyed incorporations” of which Thomas Jefferson warned in his later years—predicting that if not curbed, they would become a form of absolutism that would destroy the promise of the democratic revolution—have since more than fulfilled his most dire expectations. They have become largely unaccountable and increasingly immune from popular interference and public inspection while gaining great and expanding control over the global order. Those inside their hierarchical command structure take orders from above and send orders down below. Those outside may try to rent themselves to the system of power, but have little other relation to it (except by purchasing what it offers, if they can). The world is more complex than any simple description, but Brady’s is pretty close, even more so today than when he wrote.

It should be added that the extraordinary power that corporations and financial institutions enjoy was not the result of popular choices. It was crafted by courts and lawyers in the course of the construction of a developmental state that serves the interests of private power, and extended by playing one state against another to seek special privileges, not hard for large private institutions. That is the major reason why the current Congress, business-run to an unusual degree, seeks to devolve federal authority to the states, more easily threatened and manipulated. I’m speaking of the United States, where the process has been rather well studied in academic scholarship. I’ll keep to that case; as far as I know, it is much the same elsewhere.

We tend to think of the resulting structures of power as immutable, virtually a part of nature. They are anything but that. These forms of private tyranny only reached something like their current form, with the rights of immortal persons, early in this century. The grants of rights and the legal theory that lay behind them are rooted in much the same intellectual soil as nourished the other two major forms of 20th century totalitarianism, fascism and Bolshevism. There is no reason to consider this tendency in human affairs to be more permanent than its ignoble brethren.{Particularly illuminating on these matters is the work of Harvard legal historian Morton Horwitz, including The Transformation of American Law, 1870-1960, vol. II (Oxford, 1992).}

Conventional practice is to restrict such terms as “totalitarian” and “dictatorship” to political power. Brady is unusual in not keeping to this convention, a natural one, which helps to remove centers of decision-making from the public eye. The effort to do so is expected in any society based on illegitimate authority— any actual society, that is. That is why, for example, accounts in terms of personal characteristics and failings, vague and unspecific cultural practices, and the like, are much preferred to the study of the structure and function of powerful institutions.

When I speak of classical liberalism, I mean the ideas that were swept away, in considerable measure, by the rising tides of state capitalist autocracy. These ideas survived (or were reinvented) in various forms in the culture of resistance to the new forms of oppression, serving as an animating vision for popular struggles that have considerably expanded the scope of freedom, justice, and rights. They were also taken up, adapted, and developed within libertarian left currents. According to this anarchist vision, any structure of hierarchy and authority carries a heavy burden of justification, whether it involves personal relations or a larger social order. If it cannot bear that burden— sometimes it can—then it is illegitimate and should be dismantled. When honestly posed and squarely faced, that challenge can rarely be sustained. Genuine libertarians have their work cut out for them.

State power and private tyranny are prime examples at the outer limits, but the issues arise pretty much across the board: in relations among parents and children, teachers and students, men and women, those now alive and the future generations that will be compelled to live with the results of what we do, indeed just about everywhere. In particular, the anarchist vision, in almost every variety, has looked forward to the dismantling of state power. Personally, I share that vision, though it runs directly counter to my goals. Hence the tension to which I referred.

My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede the dedicated efforts to “roll back” the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision. Governments have a fatal flaw: unlike the private tyrannies, the institutions of state power and authority offer to the despised public an opportunity to play some role, however limited, in managing their own affairs. That defect is intolerable to the masters, who now feel, with some justification, that changes in the international economic and political order offer the prospects of creating a kind of “utopia for the masters,” with dismal prospects for most of the rest. It should be unnecessary to spell out here what I mean. The effects are all too obvious even in the rich societies, from the corridors of power to the streets, countryside, and prisons. For reasons that merit attention but that lie beyond the scope of these remarks, the rollback campaign is currently spearheaded by dominant sectors of societies in which the values under attack have been realized in some of their most advanced forms, the English-speaking world; no small irony, but no contradiction either.

It is worth bearing in mind that fulfilment of the utopian dream has been celebrated as an imminent prospect from early in the 19th century (I’ll return briefly to that period). By the 1880s, the revolutionary socialist artist William Morris could write:

I know it is at present the received opinion that the competitive or `Devil take the hindmost’ system is the last system of economy which the world will see; that it is perfection, and therefore finality has been reached in it; and it is doubtless a bold thing to fly in the face of this opinion, which I am told is held even by the most learned men.

If history is really at an end, as confidently proclaimed, then “civilization will die,” but all of history says it is not so, he added. The hope that “perfection” was in sight flourished again in the 1920s. With the strong support of liberal opinion generally, and of course the business world, Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare had successfully undermined unions and independent thought, helping to establish an era of business dominance that was expected to be permanent. With the collapse of unions, working people had no power and little hope at the peak of the automobile boom. The crushing of unions and workers’ rights, often by violence, shocked even the right-wing British press. An Australian visitor, astounded by the weakness of American unions, observed in 1928 that “Labour organization exists only by the tolerance of employers…It has no real part in determining industrial conditions.” Again, the next few years showed that the hopes were premature. But these recurrent dreams provide a model that the “control pyramids” and their political agents seek to reconstitute today.{Gary Zabel, ed., Art and Society: Lectures and Essays by William Morris (George’s Hill, Boston, 1993). Hugh Grant Adams, cited by Ronald Edsforth, Class Conflict and Cultural Consensus (Rutgers U. press, 1987, 29). See also Patricia Cayo Sexton, The War on Labor and the Left (Westview, 1991).}

In today’s world, I think, the goals of a committed anarchist should be to defend some state institutions from the attack against them, while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation—and ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society, if the appropriate circumstances can be achieved.

Right or wrong—and that’s a matter of uncertain judgment— this stand is not undermined by the apparent conflict between goals and visions. Such conflict is a normal feature of everyday life, which we somehow try to live with but cannot escape.

With this in mind, I’d like to turn to the broader question of visions. It is particularly pertinent today against the background of the intensifying attempt to reverse, undermine, and dismantle the gains that have been won by long and often bitter popular struggle. The issues are of historic importance, and are often veiled in distortion and deceit in campaigns to “convert the public to the point of view of the control pyramid.” There could hardly be a better moment to consider the ideals and visions that have been articulated, modified, reshaped, and often turned into their opposite as industrial society has developed to its current stage, with a massive assault against democracy, human rights, and even markets, while the triumph of these values is being hailed by those who are leading the attack against them — a process that will win nods of recognition from those familiar with what used to be called “propaganda” in more honest days. It is a moment in human affairs that is as interesting intellectually as it is ominous from a human point of view.

Let me begin by sketching a point of view that was articulated by two leading 20th century thinkers, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, who disagreed on a great many things, but shared a vision that Russell called “the humanistic conception”—to quote Dewey, the belief that the “ultimate aim” of production is not production of goods, but “of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.” The goal of education, as Russell put it, is “to give a sense of the value of things other than domination,” to help create “wise citizens of a free community” in which both liberty and “individual creativeness” will flourish, and working people will be the masters of their fate, not tools of production. Illegitimate structures of coercion must be unravelled; crucially, domination by “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda” (Dewey). Unless that is done, Dewey continued, talk of democracy is largely beside the point. Politics will remain “the shadow cast on society by big business, [and] the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” Democratic forms will lack real content, and people will work “not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the work earned,” a condition that is “illiberal and immoral.”

Accordingly, industry must be changed “from a feudalistic to a democratic social order” based on workers’ control, free association, and federal organization, in the general style of a range of thought that includes, along with many anarchists, G.D.H. Cole’s guild socialism and such left Marxists as Anton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, and others. Russell’s views were rather similar, in this regard.{See my Russell memorial lectures, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (Harper & Row, 1971), for discussion. On Dewey, see particularly Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Cornell U. press, 1991).}

Problems of democracy were the primary focus of Dewey’s thought and direct engagement. He was straight out of mainstream America, “as American as apple pie,” in the standard phrase. It is therefore of interest that the ideas he expressed not many years ago would be regarded today in much of the intellectual culture as outlandish or worse, if known, even denounced as “Anti-American” in influential sectors.

The latter phrase, incidentally, is interesting and revealing, as is its recent currency. We expect such notions in totalitarian societies. Thus in Stalinist days, dissidents and critics were condemned as “anti-Soviet,” an intolerable crime; Brazilian neo-Nazi Generals and others like them had similar categories. But their appearance in much more free societies, in which subordination to power is voluntary, not coerced, is a far more significant phenomenon. In any milieu that retains even the memory of a democratic culture, such concepts would merely elicit ridicule. Imagine the reaction on the streets of Milan or Oslo to a book entitled Anti-Italianism or The Anti-Norwegians, denouncing the real or fabricated deeds of those who do not show proper respect for the doctrines of the secular faith. In the Anglo-American societies, however— including Australia, so I’ve noticed—such performances are treated with solemnity and respect in respectable circles, one of the signs of a serious deterioration of ordinary democratic values.

The ideas expressed in the not very distant past by such outstanding figures as Russell and Dewey are rooted in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, and retain their revolutionary character: in education, the workplace, and every other sphere of life. If implemented, they would help clear the way to the free development of human beings whose values are not accumulation and domination, but independence of mind and action, free association on terms of equality, and cooperation to achieve common goals. Such people would share Adam Smith’s contempt for the “mean” and “sordid pursuits” of “the masters of mankind” and their “vile maxim”: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people,” the guiding principles we are taught to admire and revere, as traditional values are eroded under unremitting attack. They would readily understand what led a pre-capitalist figure like Smith to warn of the grim consequences of division of labor, and to base his rather nuanced advocacy of markets in part on the belief that under conditions of “perfect liberty” there would be a natural tendency towards equality, an obvious desideratum on elementary moral grounds.

The “humanistic conception” that was expressed by Russell and Dewey in a more civilized period, and that is familiar to the libertarian left, is radically at odds with the leading currents of contemporary thought: the guiding ideas of the totalitarian order crafted by Lenin and Trotsky, and of the state capitalist industrial societies of the West. One of these systems has fortunately collapsed, but the other is on a march backwards to what could be a very ugly future.

It is important to recognize how sharp and dramatic is the clash of values between this humanistic conception and what reigns today, the ideals denounced by the working class press of the mid-19th century as “the New Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, forgetting all but Self,” Smith’s “vile maxim,” a demeaning and shameful doctrine that no decent person could tolerate. It is remarkable to trace the evolution of values from a pre-capitalist figure like Smith, with his stress on sympathy, the goal of liberty with equality, and the basic human right to creative and fulfilling work, to those who celebrate “the New Spirit of the Age,” often shamelessly invoking Smith’s name. Let’s put aside the vulgar performances that regularly deface the ideological institutions. Consider instead someone who can at least be taken seriously, say, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, who tells us that “the ideal society is anarchy, in which no one man or group of men coerces another.” He then offers the following gloss, stated authoritatively as fact: “any person’s ideal situation is one that allows him full freedom of action and inhibits the behavior of others so as to force adherence to his own desires. That is to say, each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves,{Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan (Chicago, 1975), 92.}” a thought that Adam Smith would have considered pathological, as would Wilhelm von Humboldt, John Stuart Mill, or anyone even close to the classical liberal tradition—but that is your fondest dream, in case you hadn’t noticed.

One intriguing illustration of the state of the intellectual culture and its prevailing values is the commentary on the difficult problems we face in uplifting the people of Eastern Europe, now at last liberated, so that we can extend to them the loving care we have lavished on our wards elsewhere for several hundred years. The consequences seem rather clear in an impressive array of horror chambers around the world, but miraculously—and most fortunately—they teach no lessons about the values of our civilization and the principles that guide its noble leaders; only “anti-Americans” and their ilk could be so demented as to suggest that the consistent record of history might merit a side glance, perhaps. Now there are new opportunities for our beneficence. We can help the people released from Communist tyranny to reach, or at least approach, the blessed state of Bengalis, Haitians, Brazilians, Guatemalans, Filipinos, indigenous peoples everywhere, African slaves, and on, and on.

In late 1994, the New York Times ran a series of articles on how our pupils are doing. The one on East Germany opens by quoting a priest who was a leader of the popular protests against the Communist regime. He describes his growing concerns about what is happening in his society: “brutal competition and the lust for money are destroying our sense of community. Almost everyone feels a level of fear or depression or insecurity,” as they master the lessons we provide to the backward peoples of the world. But their reaction carries no lessons for us.{Stephen Kinzer, NYT, Oct. 14, 1994.} The showcase that everyone is proud of is Poland, where “capitalism has been kinder” than elsewhere, Jane Perlez reports under the headline “Fast and Slow Lanes on the Capitalist Road”: some Poles are getting the point, but others are slow learners.{NYT, Oct. 7, 1994.}

Perlez gives examples of both types. The good student is the owner of a small factory that is a “thriving example” of the best in modern capitalist Poland. Thanks to interest-free government loans in this now-flourishing free market society, her factory produces “glamorous beaded dresses” and “intricately designed wedding gowns,” sold mostly to rich Germans, but to wealthy Poles as well. Meanwhile, the World Bank reports, poverty has more than doubled since the reforms were instituted while real wages dropped 30%, and by the end of 1994 the Polish economy was expected to recover to 90% of its pre-1989 gross domestic product. But “capitalism has been kinder”: hungry people can appreciate the “signs of sudden consumption,” admiring the wedding gowns in the windows of elegant shops, the “foreign cars with Polish license plates” roaring down the Warsaw-Berlin road, and the “nouveau riche women with $1300 cellular telephones tucked in their pocketbooks.”

“People have to be taught to understand they must fight for themselves and can’t rely on others,” a job counsellor in the Czech Republic explains. Concerned about “the creation of an entrenched underclass,” she is running a training class to teach proper atttidues to people who had “egalitarian values drilled into their minds” in the days when “the proud slogan used to be: `I am a miner, who else is better’?” The fast learners now know the answer to that question: the ex-Nomenklatura, rich beyond their wildest dreams as they become the agents of foreign enterprises, which naturally favor them because of their skills and experience; the bankers set up in business through the “old boy network”; the Polish women enjoying consumer delights; the government-assisted manufacturers of elegant dresses for export to other rich women. In brief, the right kind of people.

Those are the successes of American values. Then there are the failures, still on the slow lane. Perlez selects as her example a 43-old coal miner, who “sits in his wood-paneled living room admiring the fruits of his labor under Communism—a television set, comfortable furniture, a shiny, modern kitchen,” now unemployed after 27 years in the mines and thinking about the years before 1989. They “were great,” he says, and “life was secure and comfortable.” A slow learner, he finds the new values “unfathomable,” and cannot understand “why he is at home, jobless and dependent on welfare payments,” worrying about his 10 children, lacking the skill to “Gain Wealth, forgetting all but Self.”

It is understandable, then, that Poland should find its place on the shelf alongside the other trophies, inspiring further pride and self-acclaim.

The region is plagued with other slow learners, a problem reviewed in a “global report” of Christian Science Monitor correspondents in the former Communist world. One entrepreneur complained that “he offered a fellow Ukrainian $100 a month to help him grow roses in a private plot” (in translation: to work for him). “Compared with the $4 that the man earned on a collective farm, it was a fortune. But the offer was rejected.” The fast learner attributes the irrationality to “a certain mentality” that lingers on even after the victory of freedom:
“He thinks, `Nyet, I’m not going to leave the collective and be your slave’.” American workers had long been infected with the same unwillingness to become someone’s slave, until properly civilized; I’ll return to that.

Tenants in an apartment building in Warsaw suffer from the same malady. They do not want to hand over their apartments to an industrialist who claims ownership of the building from before World War II, asking “Why should people profit from something they don’t have a right to?” There has been “significant reform progress” in overcoming such retrogade attitudes, the report continues, though “there is still great reluctance to let foreigners buy and sell land.” The coordinator of US-sponsored agricultural initiatives in Ukraine explains that “You’ll never have a situation where 100 percent of the land is in private hands. They’ve never had democracy.” True, anti-democratic passions do not run as high as in Vietnam, where a February 1995 decree “set the clock back”: “In a tribute to Marx, the decree aims to help Vietnamese by squeezing rent from the privileged few who have land certificates for businesses,” granted in an effort to attract foreign investment. If only foreign investors and a tiny domestic elite were allowed to buy up the country, the natives could work for them (if they are lucky), and we’d have freedom and “democracy” at last, as in Central America, the Philippines, and other paradises liberated long ago.{Justin Burke, et al., Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 1995.}

Cubans have long been berated for the same kinds of backwardness. Outrage peaked during the Pan-American games held in the United States, when Cuban athletes failed to succumb to a huge propaganda campaign to induce them to defect, including lavish financial offers to become professionals; they felt a commitment to their country and its people, they told reporters. Fury knew few bounds over the devastating impact of Communist brainwashing and Marxist doctrine.

Fortunately, Americans are protected from the fact that even under the conditions of poverty imposed by US economic warfare, Cubans still refuse to accept dollars for domestic service, so visitors report, not wanting to be “your slave.” Nor are they likely to be subjected to the results of a 1994 Gallup poll, considered to be the first independent and scientific survey, published in the Miami Spanish-language press but apparently not elsewhere: that 88% said they were “proud of being Cuban” and 58% that “the revolution’s successes outstrip its failures,” 69% identified themselves as “revolutionaries” (but only 21% as “Communist” or “socialist”), 76% said they were “satisifed with their personal life,” and 3% said that “political problems” were the key problems facing the country.

If such Communist atrocities were to be known, it might be necessary to nuke Havana instead of simply trying to kill as many people as possible from starvation and disease to bring “democracy.” That became the new pretext for strangling Cuba after the fall of the Berlin wall, the ideological institutions not missing a beat as they shifted gears. No longer was Cuba an agent of the Kremlin, bent on taking over Latin America and conquering the United States, trembling in terror. The lies of 30 years can be quietly shelved: terror and economic warfare have always been an attempt to bring democracy, in the revised standard version. Therefore we must tighten the embargo that “has contributed to an increase in hunger, illness, death and to one of the world’s largest neurological epidemics in the past century,” according to health experts writing in US medical journals in October 1994. The author of one says, “Well, the fact is that we are killing people,” by denying them food and medicines, and equipment for manufacturing their own medical products.

Clinton’s “Cuban Democracy Act”—which President Bush at first vetoed because it was so transparently in violation of international law, and then signed when he was outflanked from the right by Clinton during the election campaign—cut off trade by US subsidiaries abroad, 90% of it food, medicine and medical equipment. That contribution to democracy helped to bring about a considerable decline in Cuban health standards, an increase in mortality rates, and “the most alarming public health crisis in Cuba in recent memory,” a neurological disease that had last been observed in tropical prison camps in Southeast Asia in World War II, according to the former chief of neuro-epidemiology at the National Institute of Health, the author of one of the articles. To illustrate the effects, a Columbia University Professor of Medicine cites the case of a Swedish water filtration system that Cuba had purchased to produce vaccines, barred because some parts are produced by an American-owned company, so life-saving vaccines can be denied to bring “democracy” to the survivors.{Poll, Maria Lopez Vigil, Env¡o (Jesuit University of Central America, Managua), June 1995. Colum Lynch, Boston Globe, Sept. 15, 1994; apparently the only report in the mainstream press. See also Alexander Cockburn, Nation, Nov. 7, 1994.}

The successes in “killing people” and making them suffer are important. In the real world, Castro’s Cuba was a concern not because of a military threat, human rights abuses, or dictatorship. Rather, for reasons deeply rooted in American history. In the 1820s, as the takeover the continent was proceeding apace, Cuba was regarded by the political and economic leadership as the next prize to be won. That is “an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union,” the author of the Monroe Doctrine, John Quincy Adams, advised, agreeing with Jefferson and others that Spain should keep sovereignty until the British deterrent faded, and Cuba would fall into US hands by “the laws of political…gravitation,” a “ripe fruit” for harvest, as it did a century ago. By mid-twentieth century, the ripe fruit was highly valued by US agricultural and gambling interests, among others. Castro’s robbery of this US possession was not taken likely. Worse still, there was a danger of a “domino effect” of development in terms that might be meaningful to suffering people elsewhere—the most successful health services in Latin America, for example. It was feared that Cuba might be one of those “rotten apples” that “spoil the barrel,” a “virus” that might “infect” others, in the terminology favored by planners, who care nothing about crimes, but a lot about demonstration effects.

But respectable people do not dwell on such matters or even the elementary facts about the campaign to restore the ripe fruit to its rightful owner since 1959, including its current phase. Few Americans were exposed to the subversive material in the October 1994 medical journals, or even the fact that in the same month, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for an end to the illegal embargo by a vote of 101 to 2, the US able to rely only on Israel, now abandoned even by Albania, Romania, and Paraguay, which had briefly joined Washington in its crusade for democracy in earlier years.

The standard story is that Eastern Europe, liberated at last, can now join the wealthy societies of the West. Perhaps, but then one wonders why that hadn’t happened during the preceding half millenium, as much of Eastern Europe steadily declined relative to the West, well into this century, becoming its original “Third World.” A different prospect that might be imagined is that the status quo ante will be more or less restored: parts of the Communist empire that had belonged to the industrial West— western Poland, the Czech Republic, some others—will gradually rejoin it, while others revert to something like their earlier status as service areas for the rich industrial world, which, of course, did not get that way merely because of its unique virtue. As Winston Churchill observed in a paper submitted to his Cabinet colleagues in January 1914, “we are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves…an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”

To be sure, such honesty is rare in respectable society, though the passage would be acceptable without the italicized phrases, as Churchill understood. He did make the paper public in the 1920s, in The World Crisis, but with the offending phrases removed.{Clive Ponting, Churchill (Sinclair-Stevenson 1994), 132.}

It is also instructive to observe the framework in which the disaster of Communism is portrayed. That it was a monstrosity has never been in doubt, as was evident from the first moment to anarchists, people of independent mind like Russell and Dewey, and left Marxists—indeed predicted by many of them in advance. Nor could the collapse of the tyranny be anything but an occasion for rejoicing for anyone who values freedom and human dignity. But consider a narrower question: the standard proof that the command economy was a catastrophic failure, demonstrating the superior merits of capitalism: Simply compare West Germany, France, England, and the United States to the Soviet Union and its satellites. QED. The argument is scarcely more than an intellectual reflex, considered so obviously valid as to pass unnoticed, the presupposition of all further inquiry.

It is an interesting argument, with broad applicability. By the same logic, one can, for example, demonstrate the colossal failure of the kindergartens in Cambridge Massachusetts, and the grand success of MIT: Simply ask how well children entering first grade understand quantum physics as compared with MIT Phds. QED.

Someone who put forth that argument might be offered psychiatric treatment. The fallacy is trivially obvious. To conduct a sane evaluation, one would have to compare the graduates of the Cambridge kindergartens with children who entered the system at the same level. The same elementary rationality dictates that to evaluate the Soviet command economy as compared with the capitalist alternative, we must compare Eastern European countries to others that were like them when the “experiment” with the two development models began. Obviously not the West; one has to go back half a millenium to a find a time when it was similar to Eastern Europe. A proper comparison might be Russia and Brazil, or Bulgaria and Guatemala, though that would be unfair to the Communist model, which never had anything remotely like the advantages of the US satellites. If we undertake the rational comparison, we conclude, indeed, that the Communist economic model was a disaster; and the Western one an even more catastrophic failure. There are nuances and complexities, but the basic conclusions are rather solid.

It is intriguing to see how such elementary points cannot be understood, and to observe the reaction to attempts to explore the issue, which also cannot be understood. The exercise offers some useful lessons about the ideological systems of the free societies.{For some efforts at comparison, and review of the meager literature on the topic, see my Year 501 (South End, 1993); also World Orders, Old and New (Columbia, 1994). I’ll skip the reaction, though it is of some interest.}

What is happening now in much of Eastern Europe in part recapitulates the general record of regions of the world that were driven to a service role, in which many remain, with exceptions that are instructive. It also falls into place alongside of a long, interesting, and important strand of the history of the industrial societies themselves. Modern America was “created over its workers’ protests,” Yale University labor historian David Montgomery points out, protests that were vigorous and outspoken, along with “fierce struggles.” There were some hard-won victories, interspersed with forced accommodation to “a most undemocratic America,” notably in the 1920s, he observes, when it seemed that “the house of labor” had “fallen.”

The voice of working people was clearly and vividly articulated in the labor and community press that flourished from the mid-19th century until World War II, and even beyond, finally destroyed by state and private power. As recently as the 1950s, 800 labor newspapers were still reaching 20-30 million people, seeking—in their words—to combat the corporate offensive to “sell the American people on the virtues of big business”; to expose racial hatred and “all kinds of antidemocratic words and deeds”; and to provide “antidotes for the worst poisons of the kept press,” the commercial media, which had the task of “damning labor at every opportunity while carefully glossing over the sins of the banking and industrial magnates who really control the nation.”{Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor (Yale, 1987), 7; Jon Bekken, in Solomon and McChesney, op. cit.; Fones-Wolf, op. cit. On similar developments in England a few years later, see Edward Herman and N. Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 1988), ch. 1.2}

The popular movements of resistance to state capitalist autocracy, and their eloquent voices, have a good deal to teach us about the goals and visions of ordinary people, their understanding and aspirations. The first major study of the mid-19th century labor press (and to my knowledge still the only one) was published 70 years ago by Norman Ware. It makes illuminating reading today, or would, if it were known. Ware focuses on the journals established and run by mechanics and “factory girls” in industrial towns near Boston, “the Athens of America” and home of its greatest universities. The towns are still there, largely demoralized and in decay, but no more so than the animating visions of the people who built them and laid the foundation for American wealth and power.

The journals reveal how alien and intolerable the value systems demanded by private power were to working people, who stubbornly refused to abandon normal human sentiments. The “The New Spirit of the Age” that they bitterly condemned “was repugnant to an astonishingly large section of the earlier American community,” Ware writes. The primary reason was “the decline of the industrial worker as a person,” the “psychological change,” the “loss of dignity and independence” and of democratic rights and freedoms, as the values of industrial capitalism were imposed by state and private power, by violence when necessary. Workers deplored the “degradation and the loss of that self-respect which had made the mechanics and laborers the pride of the world,” the decline of culture, skill and attainment and even simple human dignity, as they were subjected to what they called “wage slavery,” not very different from the chattel slavery of southern plantations, they felt, as they were forced to sell themselves, not what they produced, becoming “menials” and “humble subjects” of “despots.” They described the destruction of “the spirit of free institutions,” with working people reduced to a “state of servitude” in which they “see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us like a mighty avalanche threatening annihilation to every man who dares to question their right to enslave and oppress the poor and unfortunate.” And they could hardly be unaware of the material conditions at home or in nearby Boston, where life expectancy for Irish was estimated at 14 years in 1849.

Particularly dramatic, and again relevant to the current onslaught against democracy and human rights, was the sharp decline in high culture. The “factory girls” from the farms of Massachusetts had been accustomed to spend their time reading classics and contemporary literature, and the independent craftsmen, if they had a little money, would hire a boy to read to them while they were working. It has been no small task to drive such thoughts from people’s minds, so that today, a respected commentator can dismiss with derision ideas about democratizing the internet to allow access by the less privileged: “One would imagine that the poor get about all the information they want as things stand now and in many cases, even resist the efforts of schools, libraries and the information media to make them better informed. Indeed, that resistance often helps explain why they are poor ” along with their defective genes, no doubt. The insight was considered so profound that it was highlighted in a special box by the editors.{George Melloan, Wall Street Journal, May 16, 1994.}

The labor press also condemned what it called the “bought priesthood” of the media, the universities, and the intellectual class, apologists for power who sought to justify the despotism that was strengthening its grip and to instil its demeaning values. “They who work in the mills ought to own them,” working people wrote without the benefit of radical intellectuals. In that way they would overcome the “monarchical principles” that were taking root “on democratic soil.” Years later, that became a rallying cry for the organized labor movement, even its more conservative sectors. In a widely circulated address at a trade union picnic, Henry Demarest Lloyd declared that the “mission of the labour movement is to free mankind from the superstitions and sins of the market, and to abolish the poverty which is the fruit of those sins. That goal can be attained by extending to the direction of the economy the principles of democratic politics.”

“It is by the people who do the work that the hours of labour, the conditions of employment, the division of the produce is to be determined,” he urged in what David Montgomery calls “a clarion call to the 1893 AFL convention.” It is by the workers themselves, Lloyd continued, that “the captains of industry are to be chosen, and chosen to be servants, not masters. It is for the welfare of all that the coordinated labour of all must be directed… This is democracy.”{Ware, The Industrial Worker 1840-1860 (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1990, reprint of 1924 edition); Montgomery, Citizen Worker (Cambridge 1993).}

These ideas are, of course, familiar to the libertarian left, though radically counter to the doctrines of the dominant systems of power, whether called “left,” “right,” or “center” in the largely meaningless terms of contemporary discourse. They have only recently been suppressed, not for the first time, and can be recovered, as often before.

Such values would also have been intelligible to the founders of classical liberalism. As in England earlier, reactions of workers in the industrial towns of New England illustrate the acuity of Adam Smith’s critique of division of labor. Adopting standard Enlightenment ideas about freedom and creativity, Smith recognized that “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments.” Hence:
“the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding…and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes pains to prevent it,” as must be done to bar the destructive impact of economic forces, he felt. If an artisan produces a beautiful object on command, Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in classic work that inspired Mill, “we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is”: not a free human being, but a mere device in the hands of others. For similar reasons, “the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits.” Genuine conservatives continued to recognize that market forces will destroy what is of value in human life, unless sharply constrained. Alexis de Tocqueville, echoing Smith and von Humboldt a half century earlier, asked rhetorically what “can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins?” “The art advances, the artisan recedes,” he commented. Like Smith, he valued equality of condition, recognizing it to be the foundation of American democracy, and warning that if “permanent inequality of conditions” ever becomes established, “the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes,” and which “is one of the harshest that has ever existed in the world,” might escape its confines, spelling the end of democracy. Jefferson also took it as a fundamental proposition that “widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot exist side by side in a democracy.”{Von Humboldt, see my Cartesian Linguistics (Harper & Row, 1966), “Language and Freedom,” 1969, reprinted in For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973) and James Peck, ed., The Chomsky Reader (Pantheon, 1987). Also Problems of Knowledge and Freedom. Smith, see Patricia Werhane, Adam Smith and His Legacy for Modern Capitalism (Oxford, 1991), and Year 501. De Tocqueville, Jefferson, see John Manley, “American Liberalism and the Democratic Dream,” Policy Studies Review 10.1, 1990; “The American Dream,” Nature, Society, and Thought 1.4, 1988.}

It was only in the early 19th century that the destructive and inhuman market forces that the founders of classical liberalism condemned were elevated to objects of veneration, their sanctity established with the certainty of “the principles of gravitation” by Ricardo and other classical economists as their contribution to the class war that was being fought in industrializing England – doctrines now being resurrected as “the everlasting battle for the minds of men” is waged with renewed intensity and cruelty.

It should be noted that in the real world, these economic counterparts to Newton’s laws were heeded in practice much as they are today. The rare studies of the topic by economic historians estimate that about half the industrial sector of New England would have closed down had the economy been opened to the much cheaper products of British industry, itself established and sustained with ample resort to state power. Much the same is true today, as will quickly be discovered by anyone who sweeps aside the fog of rhetoric and looks at the reality of “economic liberalism” and the “entrepreneurial values” it fosters.

John Dewey and Bertrand Russell are two of the 20th century inheritors of this tradition, with its roots in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, captured most vividly, I think, in the inspiring record of the struggle, organization and thinking of working men and women as they sought to maintain and expand the sphere of freedom and justice in the face of the new despotism of state-supported private power.

One basic issue was formulated by Thomas Jefferson in his later years, as he observed the growth of the new “manufacturing aristocracy” that alarmed de Tocqueville. Much concerned with the fate of the democratic experiment, he drew a distinction between “aristocrats” and “democrats.” The “aristocrats” are “those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.” The democrats, in contrast, “identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the honest & safe…depository of the public interest,” if not always “the most wise.” The aristocrats of his day were the advocates of the rising capitalist state, which Jefferson regarded with dismay, recognizing the obvious contradiction between democracy and capitalism—or more accurately, “really existing capitalism,” linked closely to state power.

Jefferson’s description of the “aristocrats” was developed further by Bakunin, who predicted that the “new class” of intellectuals would follow one of two parallel paths. They might seek to exploit popular struggles to take state power into their own hands, becoming a “Red bureaucracy” that will impose the most cruel and vicious regime of history. Or they might perceive that power lies elsewhere and offer themselves as its “bought priesthood,” serving the real masters either as managers or apologists, who “beat the people with the people’s stick” in the state capitalist democracies.

That must be one of the few predictions of the social sciences to have come true so dramatically. It deserves a place of honor in the famous canon for that reason alone, though we will wait a long time for that.

There is, I think, an eerie similarity between the present period and the days when contemporary ideology—what is now called “neoliberalism” or “economic rationalism”—was being fashioned by Ricardo, Malthus, and others. Their task was to demonstrate to people that they have no rights, contrary to what they foolishly believe. Indeed, that is proven by “science.” The grave intellectual error of pre-capitalist culture was the belief that people have a place in the society and a right to it, perhaps a rotten place, but at least something. The new science demonstrated that the concept of a “right to live” was a simple fallacy. It had to be patiently explained to misguided people that they have no rights, other than the right to try their luck in the market. A person lacking independent wealth who cannot survive in the labor market “has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is,” Malthus proclaimed in influential work. It is a “great evil” and violation of “natural liberty” to mislead the poor into believing that they have further rights, Ricardo held, outraged at this assault against the principles of economic science and elementary rationality, and the moral principles that are no less exalted. The message is simple. You have a free choice: the labor market, the workhouse prison, death, or go somewhere else—as was possible when vast spaces were opening thanks to the extermination and expulsion of indigenous populations, not exactly by market principles.
The founders of the science were surpassed by none in their devotion to the “happiness of the people,” and even advocated some extension of the franchise to this end: “not indeed, universally to all people, but to that part of them which cannot be supposed to have any interest in overturning the right of property,” Ricardo explained, adding that still heavier restrictions would be appropriate if it were shown that “limiting the elective franchise to the very narrowest bounds” would guarantee more “security for a good choice of representatives.”

There is an ample record of similar thoughts to the present day.{Rajani Kanth, Political Economy and Laissez-Faire (Rowman and Littlefield, 1986); see World Orders, for further discussion.}

It is useful to remember what happened when the laws of economic rationalism were formulated and imposed—in the familiar dual manner: market discipline for the weak, but the ministrations of the nanny state, when needed, to protect the wealthy and privileged. By the 1830s, the victory of the new ideology was substantial, and it was established more fully a few years later. There was a slight problem, however. People couldn’t seem to get it into their heads that they had no intrinsic rights. Being foolish and ignorant, they found it hard to grasp the simple truth that they have no right to live, and they reacted in all sorts of irrational ways. For some time, the British army was spending a good part of its energies putting down riots. Later things took a more ominous turn. People began to organize. The Chartist movement and later the labor movement became significant forces. At that point, the masters began to be a bit frightened, recognizing that we can deny them the right to live, but they can deny us the right to rule. Something had to be done.

Fortunately, there was a solution. The “science,” which is somewhat more flexible than Newton’s, began to change. By mid-century, it had been substantially reshaped in the hands of John Stuart Mill and even such solid characters as Nassau Senior, formerly a pillar of orthodoxy. It turned out that the principles of gravitation now included the rudiments of what slowly became the capitalist welfare state, with some kind of social contract, established through long and hard struggle, with many reverses, but significant successes as well.
Now there is an attempt to reverse the history, to go back to the happy days when the principles of economic rationalism briefly reigned, gravely demonstrating that people have no rights beyond what they can gain in the labor market. And since now the injunction to “go somewhere else” won’t work, the choices are narrowed to the workhouse prison or starvation, as a matter of natural law, which reveals that any attempt to help the poor only harms them—the poor, that is; the rich are miraculously helped thereby, as when state power intervenes to bail out investors after the collapse of the highly-touted Mexican “economic miracle,” or to save failing banks and industries, or to bar Japan from American markets to allow domestic corporations to reconstruct the steel, automotive, and electronics industry in the 1980s (amidst impressive rhetoric about free markets by the most protectionist administration in the postwar era and its acolytes). And far more; this is the merest icing on the cake. But the rest are subject to the iron principles of economic rationalism, now sometimes called “tough love” by those who allocate the benefits.

Unfortunately, this is no caricature. In fact, caricature is scarcely possible. One recalls Mark Twain’s despairing comment, in his (long-ignored) anti-imperialist essays, on his inability to satirize one of the admired heroes of the slaughter of Filipinos: “No satire of Funston could reach perfection, because Funston occupies that summit himself…[he is] satire incarnated.”
What is being reported blandly on the front pages would elicit ridicule and horror in a society with a genuinely free and democratic intellectual culture. Take just one example. Consider the economic capital of the richest country in the world: New York City. Its Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, finally came clean about his fiscal policies, including the radically regressive shift in the tax burden: reduction in taxes on the rich (“all of the Mayor’s tax cuts benefit business,” the New York Times noted in the small print) and increase in taxes on the poor (concealed as rise in transit fares for school children and working people, higher tuition at city schools, etc.).

Coupled with severe cutbacks in public funds that serve public needs, these policies should help the poor go somewhere else, the Mayor explained. These measures would “enable them to move freely around the country,” the report in the Times elaborated, under the headline: “Giuliani Sees Welfare Cuts Providing a Chance to Move.”{David Firestone, NYT, April 29; tax cuts, Steven Lee Myers, NYT, April 28, 1995.}

In short, those who were bound by the welfare system and public services are at last liberated from their chains, much as the founders of the doctrines of classical liberalism advised in their rigorously demonstrated theorems. And it is all for their benefit, the newly-reconstituted science proves. As we admire the imposing edifice of rationality incarnated, the compassion for the poor brings tears to the eyes.

Where will the liberated masses go? Perhaps to favelas on the outskirts, so they can be “free” to find their way back somehow to do the dirty work for those who are entitled to enjoy the richest city in the world, with inequality greater than Guatemala and 40% of children already below the poverty line before these new measures of “tough love” are instituted.

Bleeding hearts who cannot comprehend the favors being lavished on the poor should at least be able to see that there is no alternative. “The lesson of the next few years may be that New York is simply not wealthy or economically vital enough to afford the extensive public sector that it has created over the post great Depression period,” we learn from an expert opinion featured in another Times front-page story. The loss of economic vitality is real enough, in part a result of “urban development” programs that eliminated a flourishing manufacturing base in favor of the expanding financial sector. The city’s wealth is another matter. The expert opinion to which the Times turned is the report to investors of the J.P. Morgan investment firm, fifth in the ranking of commercial banks in the 1995 Fortune 500 listing, suffering from a mere $1.2 billion in profits in 1994. To be sure, it was not a great year for J.P. Morgan as compared with the “stunning” profit increase of 54% for the 500 with a mere 2.6% increase of employment and 8.2% sales gain in “one of the most profitable years ever for American business,” as Fortune eported exultantly. The business press hailed another “banner year for U.S. corporate profits,” while “U.S. household wealth seems to have actually fallen” in this fourth straight year of double-digit profit growth and 14th straight year of decline in real wages. The Fortune 500 have attained new heights of “economic might,” with revenues close to two-thirds of gross domestic product, a good bit more than Germany or Britain, not to speak of their power over the global economy—an impressive concentration of power in unaccountable private tyrannies. and another welcome blow against democracy and markets.{Fortune, May 15, May 1; Business Week, March 6, 1995.}

We live in “lean and mean times,” and everyone has to tighten their belts; so the mantra goes. In reality, the country is awash in capital, with “surging profits” that are “overflowing the coffers of Corporate America,” Business Week exulted even before the grand news came in about the record-breaking final quarter of 1994, with a “phenomenal 71% advance” for the 900 companies in BW’s “Corporate Scoreboard.” And with times so tough all over, what choice is there but to “provide a chance to move” to the now-liberated masses?{BW, Jan. 30; May 15, 1995.}

“Tough love” is just the right phrase: love for the rich and privileged, tough for everyone else. The rollback campaign on the social, economic, political, and ideological fronts exploits opportunities afforded by significant shifts of power in the past 20 years, into the hands of the masters. The intellectual level of prevailing discourse is beneath contempt, and the moral level grotesque. But the assessment of prospects that lies behind them is not unrealistic. That is, I think, the situation in which we now find ourselves, as we consider goals and visions.
As always in the past, one can choose to be a democrat in Jefferson’s sense, or an aristocrat. The latter path offers rich rewards, given the locus of wealth, privilege and power, and the ends it naturally seeks. The other path is one of struggle, often defeat, but also rewards that cannot be imagined by those who succumb to “the New Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, forgetting all but Self.”

Today’s world is far from that of Thomas Jefferson or mid-19th century workers. The choices it offers, however, have not changed in any fundamental way.