[From 2008.] Reading Chomsky’s pamphlet Government in the Future, which sets out to answer the question “What is the role of the state in an advanced industrial society?” He lays out four idealized positions: classical liberalism, libertarian socialism, state socialism, and state capitalism. “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.” Incidentally, the latter (superficially counterintuitive) proposition is basically what I said in my paper on Plato, when I mentioned offhandedly that the ideology of communism rescues the essence of liberalism from its capitalistic mutilations.
“Classical liberalism asserts as its major idea an opposition to all but the most restricted and minimal forms of state intervention in personal and social life.” This conclusion is well-known, but the original reasoning for it is not. Chomsky reconstructs it by looking at Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Limits of State Action. I don’t know much about Humboldt except that he put forward a view Chomsky later took up, namely that essential to language is creativity, the human capacity to formulate an infinite number of linguistic expressions using a finite set of resources (the basic elements of language). Humboldt’s view of human nature shares this emphasis on creativity: “to inquire and to create are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve”. (I would add ‘to love’ to that list. To inquire, to create, and to love are the three main spontaneous expressions of humanity, at least in its original, uncorrupted essence. All three come from the drive to assimilate (and impose oneself on) the environment, to overcome its otherness.) Man’s central attribute, then, is his freedom. Humboldt’s discussions of—paeans to—labor recall Rousseau, and are striking anticipations of the early Marx. “It seems as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists [says Humboldt]; that is, men who love labor for its own sake… Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.”
Humboldt might then have agreed with Marx in his belief that the revolutionist is primarily a frustrated producer rather than a dissatisfied consumer. “This far more radical critique,” says Chomsky, “of capitalist relations of production flows directly, often in the same words, from the libertarian thought of the Enlightenment. For this reason, I think, one must say that classical liberal ideas in their essence, though not in the way they developed, are profoundly anticapitalist.” Only when, for example, the concept of the ‘person’ was redefined in the era of corporate capitalism (when corporations themselves became ‘persons’) could classical liberalism, with its emphasis on personal freedom and rights, be invoked in support of capitalism. All the Enlightenment thinkers would of course have condemned capitalist coercion and bondage.
If you know Chomsky, you’ll know that much of the pamphlet consists in an empirically supported denunciation of U.S. power-structures.
Random quotation from Mark Twain that I like: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” If you do practice them, you get ostracized and demonized, as Chomsky has.