Archives for posts with tag: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky tells us that the essence of anarchism is

to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations…and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. (Chomsky on Anarchism: Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future, 178)

So anarchy is fundamentally a perpetual questioning of authority and power; it asks us to consider the legitimacy of all power. In fact, James C Scott begins his history of anarchism in upland Southeast Asia by pointing out that we have to study the state by also studying statelessness or anarchy:

The huge literature on state-making, contemporary and historic, pays virtually no attention to its obverse: the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness. This is the history of those who got away, and state-making cannot be understood apart from it. This is also what makes this an anarchist history. (The Art of Not Being Governed, x)

To me, the comments from Chomsky and Scott imply an important question, one that I am not sure of the answer, although I hope to find it out some day. The question is this: what exactly is this “power” that anarchists are deliberately trying to run away from?

The question is simply this: what is power? The answer is not obvious. Trying to answer this question is the purpose of my following series of articles. I have decided to use G. William Domhoff’s collection of articles as a springboard for my exploration into the question of “what is power?”

In this article, I am going to use Domhoff’s article called Who Rules America: Alternative Theoretical Views as my starting point of inquiry. I will limit this article to a discussion of pluralism.

Domhoff, who is in the Sociology Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, begins his discussion of pluralism, one of many rival theories of power, with this rather ominous sentence:

Pluralism is the theory that most closely corresponds to claims made in high school textbooks and the mass media, and to what many Americans believe. (bold emphasis mine)

In other words the pluralist theory seems to be very popular. My gut feeling is that if something is popular, then it is probably wrong. According to Mark Twain, this is a time to reflect:

Now I will summarize Domhoff’s discussion of the nature of pluralism (and neo-pluralism–which is the revised version of pluralism). I hope that you will start to wonder why this is the popular theory of power in the United States, because I certainly did.

  1. There are no hierarchies (so anarchism is useless, because anarchy is about abolishing hierarchical relationships in society). There is no dominant class. Power is disbursed among several groups. Power seems to be situational because different groups have power on different issues.
  2. Pluralism “mirrors” the free market economy. Everything “works” in society because of competition. Just as markets have competition in order to provide “consumer sovereignty,” so too the political arena has competition in order to provide “voter sovereignty.”
  3. The government is seen as a neutral dispute resolution body that will arbitrate among the competing interests in the society. The government is a fair and impartial judge.
  4. Power comes from the bottom up or the grassroots. The people rule! Democratic capitalism is a collection of voluntary groups that attempt to influence public opinion.
  5. These groups can become “institutionalized” into what are called “interest groups.” These interest groups can form coalitions or alliances depending on the situation.
  6. Corporate power is a non-issue. Corporate leaders are too divided among themselves to dominate government.
  7. The basic pluralist assumption about human nature is that people are self-maximizing individuals. In other words, capitalism is in, egalitarianism is out.
  8. When it comes to property rights, pluralism sounds exactly like right wing libertarianism: “The state may be brought in to institutionalize property rights, or it may be viewed as a dangerous threat to them; but the state is not a part of the creation of private property” (bold emphasis mine). It reminds me of all these online discussions from right wing libertarians trying to explain the “non-state” origins of property: such as homesteading or self-ownership.
  9. Major foundation funding of new citizen interest groups is downplayed as a source of nefarious influence by money on these citizen groups. In other words, the independence of these citizen groups has not been compromised even though they are getting a lot of money from corporate foundations.
  10. Evidence supporting the pluralist view is found in the correlation between public opinion and legislative outcome.

My Comments on Pluralism’s Theory of Power:

My initial reaction is that pluralism seems to be a theory of power created by people in power in order to justify their existing power. Domhoff stresses the fact that pluralism likes to dance around and minimize the corporate power issue. In his list of arguments against pluralism, the one that jumps out at me is this one:

At that point it seemed to a growing number of social scientists that corporations did have predominant power and that the government was not responsive to the interests of the general public. (bold emphasis mine)

Domhoff’s argument reminds me of Chomsky’s argument, about how maximizing corporate power results in the minimization of popular power:

Of course, when you minimize the state, you maximize something else–and it isn’t popular control. What gets maximized is private power, domestic and foreign. (How the World Works, 262).

There is also a similarity between Domhoff’s view that public opinion in America is all fake, the product of corporate programming, and Chomsky’s views on manufacturing consent. Domhoff argues, when discussing how public opinion is actually corporate opinion, “the corporate community spends enormous sums of money to influence public opinion through an opinion-shaping network.” Similarly, Chomsky in his book How the World Works says that “one factor is the power of business propaganda in the US, which has succeeded, to an unusual extent, in breaking down the relations among people and their sense of support for one another” (301). Both authors attack the public relations industry for shaping public opinion.

I think what the pluralist theory is trying to accomplish is to argue that power is dispersed throughout the society. Nobody has a little group or class in charge. The people or the masses are in charge through the competitive process of voting. The government–this neutral tool of the people–then works out all the conflicts between groups in society.

I think the fundamental problem with this theory of power is that it ignores the problem of inequality. It is very difficult to speak of a voluntary society when some groups have lots of wealth while other groups have very little wealth. Domhoff stresses the fact that pluralism is based on a justification of inequality: “there are great inequalities in power and wealth, but they are disbursed among several groups.” It is this defense of radical inequality that makes the pluralist system break down, in my opinion.

The next article, Part 2 in this series, will continue with Domhoff’s paper by discussing the State Autonomy Theory of Power.













William Graham Sumner

Back when I used to believe in anarcho-capitalism–and “believe” is the right term to use, since it does have many qualities of a religious faith–I remember reading this following quotation from William Graham Sumner. I used to believe it; in fact, I remember sharing it on some Facebook anarchist pages. It comes from a short post on the Molinari Institute’s website, called W. G. Sumner–On Anarchy:

Gentlemen, the time is coming when there will be two great classes, Socialists, and Anarchists. The Anarchists want the government to be nothing, and the Socialists want the government to be everything. There can be no greater contrast. Well, the time will come when there will be only these two great parties, the Anarchists representing the laissez faire doctrine and the Socialists representing the extreme view on the other side, and when that time comes I am an Anarchist.

So the world, according to William Graham Sumner–a man who has been appropriated by the right wing libertarian author Thomas J DiLorenzo in his book Hamilton’s Curse, which incidentally is also a bifurcated argument between the “evil” Alexander Hamilton and the “good” Thomas Jefferson–can be broken down into the two competing camps of

  1. Anarchists who, apparently are ignorant of the history of anarchist thought, are supporters of laissez faire capitalism
  2. Socialists who, apparently are ignorant of the history of socialist thought, are supporters of total government

This theme of dividing the world into two and only two camps is the thesis of the Philip Pilkington paper, which I mentioned before, entitled The Austrian Disease–Poor Scholarship, a Priori Bias. Pilkington’s thesis, to quickly recap, is

Because the libertarian’s world is divided up into ‘good’ ideologies and ‘bad’ ideologies it is inevitable that they should actively seek out some reason that the ‘bad’ ideologies will eventually be punished. When one engages in this sort of moralistic and theological dividing up of the world, it is not surprising that one soon falls back on the old religious ways of thinking about Judgement and Punishment. What is so fascinating is that, not unlike the stories of the anti-evolutionists, this dogma is so impervious to facts.

Let me present some illustrations of this “good” versus “evil” approach in right wing libertarian literature. We have the “good” businessmen and women who use the market mechanism to make their wealth versus the “bad” businessmen and women who use the political mechanism to make their wealth. We see this in Thomas J DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America

A pure market entrepreneur, or capitalist, succeeds financially by selling a newer, better, or less expensive product on the free market without any government subsidies, direct or indirect….By contrast, a political entrepreneur succeeds primarily by influencing government to subsidize his business or industry, or to enact legislation or regulation that harms his competitors. (111)

  1. The market entrepreneur seems to be just another version of Sumner’s laissez faire capitalist, i.e., no government involvement
  2. The political entrepreneur seems to be just another version of Sumner’s socialist, i.e., with government involvement

I will just mention in passing that this definition of “capitalist” as a person who gets financial success without any government assistance is probably just a textbook example of “special pleading.” Take for example Michael Perelman’s book The Invention of Capitalism. If we look at the book quickly, do we see capitalists getting their wealth by totally eschewing government and state intervention in the economy? Are we going to get this lovely history of market entrepreneurship in action? I when I look at this history book, it seems as though the creation of capitalism involved coercion and violence, and the use of government laws. In other words, it sounds as though the market entrepreneur might be an imaginary creation of capitalist apologetics:

To make sure that people accepted wage labor, the political economists actively advocated measures to deprive people of their traditional means of support. The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy. In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as “primitive accumulation.” (2)

Perelman then goes on to mention some of the laws or “government interventions” that were needed to “create capitalism,” or, in other words, to suggest that the history is more about the “political entrepreneur” than “market entrepreneur”:

Although the origin of the Game Laws was feudal, their application and their ferocity peaked during the Industrial Revolution. They were a useful instrument to separate rural people from a major source of sustenance, adding considerable weight to the pressures to accept wage labor. They also incited many poor people in the countryside to rebel. (5)

Similarly, if we look at Noam Chomsky’s Chomsky on Anarchism, the picture of capitalism’s history does NOT look like the rosy and sanguine history of “market entrepreneurs.” Instead, we see the complete opposite. We see what looks like riot police beating the hell out of the average people. I wonder if capitalist apologists are combing through the history books to find a few examples that might look like their “market entrepreneur” character while ignoring the massive amounts of evidence for the “political entrepreneur” character. In other words, are they turning the exception to the rule into the general norm? That is my suspicion, especially when you read things such as this from Chomsky on our putative “market entrepreneurs”:

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. (206-207, emphasis in the original)

And there are other examples of the bifurcated nature of right wing libertarianism. Let me mention two more for this article, namely, the consumer versus producer sovereignty distinction and the public versus private ownership of the means of production distinction.

1. Public versus Private Ownership of the Means of Production

Obviously, capitalists and other right wing libertarians spend an inordinate amount of time discussing property. The right wing libertarians tend to bifurcate this particular issue by seeing the world as simply:

  1. Private Ownership of the Means of Production
  2. Public Ownership of the Means of Production

Take for example Ludwig von Mises’s assertions about how we can reduce everything down to this simple distinction, from his book Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. Mises makes this distinction very early on in his book, on page 2 in fact! He writes that

we wish to consider two different systems of human cooperation under the division of labor–one based on private ownership of the means of production, and the other based on communal ownership of the means of production. The latter is called socialism or communism; the former, liberalism or also (ever since it created in the nineteenth century a division of labor encompassing the whole world) capitalism. The liberals maintain that the only workable system of human cooperation in a society based on the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production. They contend that socialism as a completely comprehensive system encompassing all the means of production is unworkable and that the application of the socialist principle to a part of the means of production, though not, of course, impossible, leads to a reduction in the productivity of labor, so that, far from creating greater wealth, it must, on the contrary, have the effect of diminishing wealth. (2)

So the world is reduced to communism versus capitalism, public versus private ownership of the means of production. One way to break this black-and-white thinking is to look at the provocative writings of the anarchist writer Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Chapter 4 of Proudhon’s What is Property is entitled That Property is Impossible. Obviously if “property is impossible” or as Proudhon says, “without force, property is null and void” then we have a third option to consider. Proudhon starts with the bold thesis:

It is property which is a contradiction, a chimera, a utopia.

So maybe there is no such thing as property; hence, we might wonder if neither public nor private property exists. Therefore, Mises’s distinction might be rendered as meaningless.

I will mention one other related issue, the question of “just” versus “unjust” property. In a right wing libertarian environment “just” property would be market and voluntarily acquired property while “unjust” property is going to be “socialist” or “communist” public property–i.e., state property.  Consider Hans Hermann Hoppe’s The Economics and Ethics of Private Property where he spells out this distinction between “just” property (private property) and “unjust” property (state or public property).  Hoppe writes (notice again the “good” versus “bad” distinction):

According to them, antagonistic interests do not exist between capitalists as owners of factors of production and laborers, but between, on the one hand, the producers in society, i.e., homesteaders, producers, and contractors, including businessmen as well as workers, and on the other hand, those who acquire wealth nonproductively and/or noncontractually, i.e., the state and state-privileged groups, such as feudal lords. (96)

So this seems to be a version of private versus public property but cast in the form of:

  1. Producers (i.e., private property), versus
  2. Nonproducers (i.e., state or public property)

What is very interesting about this is that it smacks of what is called Producerism. “Producerism” is a model that seems to be a type of right wing populism. It is defined as follows:

Producerism begins in the US with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology.  Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below.  (The Producerist Narrative in Repressive Right Wing Populism)

The big red flag here is the fact that Producerism began in the United States with the Jacksonians. If you pull out right wing libertarian Thomas J DiLorenzo’s book Hamilton’s Curse, you will also see that he spends a lot of time praising the Jacksonians.

The Producerist idea is that the “producers” who got their property “justly” are being robbed by “parasitical” leeches above and below them. These parasites obviously got their property “unjustly.” A picture of the setup is as follows:

So the “justly acquired” property holders in the central circle are being robbed by the “unjustly acquired” property holders from above (the elites) and by the “unjustly acquired” property holders from below (the lower class parasites).  So we have the following parasites or “unjustly acquired” property holders in this right wing populism model:

  1. Elite or Top Parasites such as bankers from the Federal Reserve System and other “political entrepreneurs”
  2. Lower Class Parasites such as people wanting Civil Rights or food stamps for the poor

And of course, the central circle represents the market entrepreneurs of justly acquired property holders.

This suggests to me that one of the reasons for why we are picking up this bifurcated tendency in right wing libertarian thought is that right wing libertarian thought is meant for a class of people who feel squeezed from above and below. It is probably symptomatic of the death of the middle class or the American Dream.

I think this theme of trying to related Producerism to the writings of right wing libertarians from the Austrian school is a good one and I want to expand upon it in later articles.

I will quickly add that this idea of “just” and “unjust” property sounds like a bifurcation fallacy to me. Assuming that property actually exists (recall my point above from Proudhon), I would guess that most people would view the concept of “just” property as a continuum, or scale.

I think this is the case because I am fairly confident that there is no such thing as “purely justly” acquired property. I am sure that if I were to look hard enough and if I were to look far enough back into history, I could demonstrate that all property has some “impurities” to it. In other words, all existing property would fail Hoppe’s definition of “justly acquired property” if we were trying to be “purists.”

For example, if I were to launch a military invasion of Libya in order to steal oil resources, I think most people would agree that I am engaged in a process of “unjustly” acquiring property. This is because I assume that most people would view murdering other people as something that is wrong.

But what about wage labor. Is that an example of “justly” acquired property? I used to be a marker grader and instructor at a university in Ontario.  Now the province created the university through some sort of “enabling” legislation, so the university itself is probably an example of “unjust” property, since it is a creature of the State. Then, the government engaged in taxation to raise money to pay for the university, including my wages. So this would be “unjust” property acquisition again. But, I signed a contract of employment with the university, so that part would probably get classified as “justly” acquired property.  I then engaged in wage labor, which again would be an example of “justly” acquired property. But then I had to pay taxes on my income, which introduces some more “unjustly” acquired property, i.e., unjustly acquired by the governments of Ontario and Canada.  The remainder of the money was deposited in my bank account and mutual funds. Now, I earned interest and dividends on my investments, which might be considered “justly” acquired property if I were a capitalist or it might be considered “unjustly” acquired property if I were to stick with my anarchist views. And so on.

In other words, it seems like all of our daily transactions could be classified as a mixture of “justly” and “unjustly” acquired property.  Maybe there are examples of the “pure” cases of either “justly” or “unjustly” acquired property. I am not sure. It probably depends on how a person wants to interpret a situation. Moreover, it seems to me that these terms are subjective. What is “just” to one person might be considered “unjust” to someone else. So this could be another way to undermine the black-and-white thinking of right wing libertarianism.

2. Producer versus Consumer Sovereignty

A common theme in the writings of right wing libertarian Ludwig von Mises is the distinction between producer and consumer sovereignty. In fact, the first Mises book that I read is called Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, and right on page 4 we see a strong emphasis on the idea of “the supremacy of the consumers”:

The economic foundation of this bourgeois system is the market economy in which the consumer is sovereign. The consumer, i.e., everybody, determines by his buying or abstention from buying what should be produced, in what quantity and of what quality. The businessmen are forced by the instrumentality of profit and loss to obey the orders of the consumers. Only those enterprises can flourish that supply in the best possible and cheapest way those commodities and services which the buyers are most anxious to acquire. Those who fail to satisfy the public suffer losses and are finally forced to go out of business. (4)

The opposite of “consumer sovereignty” is “producer sovereignty,” an idea that Mises dismisses derisively. In one of Ludwig von Mises’s earliest books, the 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time, he brusquely dismisses the idea of arranging production around the needs of producers:

One of the great ideas of liberalism is that it lets the consumer interest alone count and disregards the producer interest. No production is worth maintaining if it is not suited to bring about the cheapest and best supply. No producer is recognized as having a right to oppose any change in the conditions of production because it runs counter to his interest as a producer. The highest goal of all economic activity is the achievement of the best and and most abundant satisfaction of wants at the smallest cost.

Preferring the producer interest over the consumer interest, which is characteristic of antiliberalism, means nothing other than striving artificially to maintain conditions of production that have been rendered inefficient by continuing progress.

The ideal of centralist socialism is at least discussible; that of syndicalism is so absurd that one need waste few words on it. (164-165)

I will mention a few issues that undermine this black-and-white way of looking at the world of economics. One way is to question Mises’s initial assertion that the entire capitalist economic system is based on the self-regulation of the profit and loss system. It is one thing to assert a theory about how capitalism “ought” to work; it is another thing to go and check whether this “is” how capitalism works in our world. The blogger Lord Keynes takes a more empirical research approach to studying what capitalism is actually like, by looking at the decision making process of actual business managers, as opposed to looking at the theories of economists. Lord Keynes spends a lot of time discussing the idea of “administered prices,” and some of their important implications, one being that short term profit and loss changes do not have the adjustment effects suggested by Mises. In other words, the highly flexible and adjustable world described by Mises doesn’t exist in most industries. From memory, when Lord Keynes searches for empirical evidence regarding how widespread administered prices are, the numbers cited are usually around 50 to 70% of businesses. In his article John Kenneth Galbraith on Administered Prices, we see that

the first benefit of administered prices to a firm is stability of profit, and a minimum profit level. Truly flexible prices or price wars are shunned by many businesses as a grave threat to stability of profit.

The second point I will make comes from Noam Chomsky’s Chomsky on Anarchism. Instead of looking at the world as either producer or consumer sovereignty, maybe we could look at it as a harmony of these two interests. This seems to be Chomsky’s point in his Chapter 4 article entitled The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism (1976). When asked by the interviewer whether the value of output would collapse under Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist ideas that would benefit the workers/producers, Chomsky thinks that making work more meaningful will cause more output to be produced:

And over and above that there is the pride and the self-fulfillment that comes from a job well done–from simply taking your skills and putting them to use. Now I don’t see why that should in any way harm, in fact I should think it would enhance, the value of what’s produced. (145)

And of course, I am only scratching the surface on how one could go about creating a much more nuanced argument with regard to the issues raised by Mises’s consumer versus producer distinction. Just to mention it quickly before I go onto the next section, one could challenge the whole notion of consumer sovereignty, by claiming that it really doesn’t exist under capitalism in the first place.  One place to start would be the article by the Anarchist Writers entitled C.1 What is wrong with economics? In particular, we see a number of objections, the most obvious being “demand management” (or manipulation!) by firms:

While capitalist apologists go on about “consumer sovereignty” and the market as a “consumers democracy,” the reality is somewhat different. Firstly, and most obviously, big business spends a lot of money trying to shape and influence demand by means of advertising. Not for them the neoclassical assumption of “given” needs, determined outside the system. So the reality of capitalism is one where the “sovereign” is manipulated by others.

Concluding Remarks

I fear that the right wing libertarians are losing a lot of nuance in their arguments by trying to reduce the world to black-and-white or good versus evil type arguments. This approach is a great idea if I were running a religion. Preach the gospel of truth and fight the lies of the political economic devils! It provides for clear cut solutions in a world that really isn’t very clear cut. Maybe my views on anarchism are wrong. Maybe we really need coercion for society to work. Maybe capitalism really is the correct system of economic organization. Maybe, maybe, maybe. This is why this “absolutist” approach that seems to permeate the right wing libertarian literature is probably a sign of intolerant dogmatism. I end this post with an interesting and appropriate quotation from Bertrand Russell: