Chomsky’s Augustinian Anarchism

Roderick Long


Noam Chomsky is perhaps the United States’ best-known anarchist. There’s a certain irony to this, however; for just as St. Augustine once prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” Chomsky’s aim is in effect anarchy, but not yet.

Chomsky’s reason for the “not yet” is that a powerful central government is currently necessary as a bulwark against the power of the corporate elite; thus it will not be safe to abolish or even scale back the state until we first use the state to break the power of the corporate elite:

“In the long term, I think the centralized political power ought to be eliminated and dissolved and turned down ultimately to the local level, finally, with federalism and associations and so on. On the other hand, right now, I’d like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power that are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised.

There’s only one way of defending rights that have been attained, or of extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that’s to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsible to the public and which the public can indeed influence.” — You Say You Want a Devolution

Now Chomsky’s notion of the state as a crucial bulwark against “concentrations of private power” might initially seem puzzling, given that – as Chomsky’s own research has confirmed time and again – the state has historically been the chief enabler of such concentrations. But what Chomsky seems to mean is not so much that it generally acts as a bulwark now, but rather that it can be made to do so; if you’re facing a much stronger opponent (private power) who also has a sword (government power), you’re better off trying to grab the sword and use it against him than you would be simply destroying the sword.

“The government is far from benign – that’s true. On the other hand, it’s at least partially accountable, and it can become as benign as we make it.

What’s not benign (what’s extremely harmful, in fact) is something you didn’t mention – business power, which is highly concentrated and, by now, largely transnational. Business power is very far from benign and it’s completely unaccountable. It’s a totalitarian system that has an enormous effect on our lives. It’s also the main reason why the government isn’t benign.” — On Gun Control

There are two assumptions here with which I want to take issue.

First, Chomsky assumes that the influence of private business on government is “the main reason why the government isn’t benign.” Why on earth does he believe this? Monopoly power tends to invite abuse, whether those who direct that power are mostly within or mostly outside the state apparatus. If Chomsky thinks government would be so harmless without evil capitalists pulling the strings, why does he want to abolish it even in the long run?

Second, Chomsky assumes that state power is “partially accountable” while business power is “completely unaccountable.” Now to begin with, I’m not sure whether the accountability of state power is here being contrasted with that of actually existing, state-enabled business power or instead with the accountability of business power as it would be without governmental support. But if it’s the former, then the contrast, even if correct, would provide no grounds for resisting the state’s abolition; the fact that X + Y is more dangerous than X by itself is not a good reason to defend X. The contrast is relevant to a defense of the state only if business, without state support, would still be less accountable than the state. And here it seems obvious that the state – even a democratic state – is far less accountable than genuinely private business.

After all, a business can get your labour and/or possessions only if you agree to hand them over, while a government can extract these by force. Of course you can try to vote your current representatives out of office, but only at multiple-year intervals, and only if you convince 51 % of your neighbours to do likewise; whereas you can terminate your relationship with a business at any time, and without getting others to go along. Moreover, each candidate offers a package-deal of policies, whereas with private enterprise I can choose, say, Grocery A’s vegetables and Grocery B’s meats.

David Friedman illuminates the contrast:

“When a consumer buys a product on the market, he can compare alternative brands. … When you elect a politician, you buy nothing but promises. … You can compare 1968 Fords, Chryslers, and Volkswagens, but nobody will ever be able to compare the Nixon administration of 1968 with the Humphrey and Wallace administrations of the same year. It is as if we had only Fords from 1920 to 1928, Chryslers from 1928 to 1936, and then had to decide what firm would make a better car for the next four years….

Not only does a consumer have better information than a voter, it is of more use to him. If I investigate alternative brands of cars …. decide which is best for me, and buy it, I get it. If I investigate alternative politicians and vote accordingly, I get what the majority votes for. …

Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group. … This is how I must buy products on the political marketplace. I not only cannot compare the alternative products, it would not be worth my while to do so even if I could.” — The Machinery of Freedom

The “accountability” provided by democratic government seems laughable by comparison with the accountability provided by the market. The chief function of the ballot, it would seem, is to make the populace more tractable by convincing them they’re somehow in charge.

None of this should be news to Chomsky, who after all has himself pointed out:

“As things now stand, the electoral process is a matter of the population being permitted every once in a while to choose among virtually identical representatives of business power. That’s better than having a dictator, but it’s a very limited form of democracy. Most of the population realizes that and doesn’t even participate. … And of course elections are almost completely purchased. In the last congressional elections, 95 percent of the victors in the election outspent their opponents, and campaigns were overwhelmingly funded by corporations.” —Chomsky’s Other Revolution

Well, yes, exactly. So what is the basis of Chomsky’s faith in the democratic state?

Chomsky might object that my defense of market accountability ignores the fact that such “accountability” involves voting with dollars, so that the wealthy have more votes than the poor – whereas in a democratic state everyone has an equal vote. But even if we leave aside the causal dependence of existing disparities of wealth on systematic state intervention – as well as the fact that government, by controlling the direction of resources it does not own, magnifies the power of the wealthy – it still remains the case that however few dollars one may have, when one votes with those dollars one gets something back, whereas when one votes with ballots one gets back nothing one was aiming for unless one happens to be voting with the majority. Which is less democratic – a system in which the effectiveness of one’s vote varies with one’s resources, or one in which 49% of the population has no effective vote at all?

Chomsky is hardly unaware that what he calls “business power” depends crucially on government intervention – since he has done as much as anyone to document this relationship. As he notes:

“Any form of concentrated power, whatever it is, is not going to want to be subjected to popular democratic control or, for that matter, to market discipline. Powerful sectors, including corporate wealth, are naturally opposed to functioning democracy, just as they’re opposed to functioning markets, for themselves, at least.” — Reflections on Democracy (emphasis added)

So if the corporate elite are so terrified of the free market, why is Chomsky so reluctant to hurl them into it?

Perhaps Chomsky’s view is that although government is needed to create these concentrations of private power, it’s not needed to maintain them, so just suppressing the state at this point in the game would leave business power intact. That’s not a crazy view, but it needs argument. After all, systematic government intervention on behalf of big business isn’t just something that happened back in the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era or the New Deal; it continues, massively and unceasingly. I wouldn’t claim (indeed I’ve denied) that private power depends solely and uniquely on state support; but it’s hard to believe that all that state support is simply superfluous, as it must be if removing such state support wouldn’t appreciably weaken businesss power.

Chomsky has said (in Answers to Eight Questions on Anarchism) that although he finds himself “in substantial agreement with people who consider themselves anarcho-capitalists on a whole range of issues,” and also “admire[s] their commitment to rationality,” he nevertheless regards the free-market version of anarchism as “a doctrinal system which, if ever implemented, would lead to forms of tyranny and oppression that have few counterparts in human history.” Why? Because “the idea of ‘free contract’ between the potentate and his starving subject is a sick joke.”

But this argument is blatantly question-begging. Chomsky is assuming the very point that’s in dispute – namely that without government intervention on behalf of the rich, the economy would be divided into “potentates” and “starving subjects.” Now it’s true that market anarchists (for reasons explained elsewhere, I prefer to avoid the term “anarcho-capitalist”) themselves have sometimes – mistakenly, in my view – described their ideal economy as looking very much like the distribution of wealth and labour roles in our present economy, only minus the state. But why should Chomsky take their word for it? If the state really is intervening massively and systematically on behalf of the “potentate” and against the “starving subject” – as Chomsky must admit that it is, since his research explicitly demonstrates just this – why on earth would he expect that power imbalance to remain unchanged once that intervention ceases?

Not only does Chomsky underestimate the resources of anarchy, but he also appears to overestimate the serviceability of the state. He writes as if, even though the state is doing lots of bad stuff now, this could all be changed if more people would vote correctly. Now it’s true enough that people voting differently can make a difference to just how bad the government is. (If enough Germans had voted differently in 1932, they could have gotten a less awful regime.) Still, at the end of the day, what’s wrong with a coercive monopoly is not that the wrong people are running it, but rather that – leaving aside its inherent injustice – such a monopoly brings with it incentival and informational perversities which there is no way to avoid (except by removing the source of the problem, the monopoly, in which case what you have is no longer a state).

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