Chomsky | Government in the Future | talk given Feb 16, 1970

Government in the Future

Noam Chomsky 

excerpt from a talk given at the 92nd Street Y New York City

Feb. 16, 1970


Let me summarize briefly again. I have mentioned so far two reference points for discussion of the state: classical liberalism and libertarian socialism. They are in agreement that the functions of the state are repressive and that state action must be limited. The libertarian socialist goes on to insist that state power must be eliminated in favor of the democratic organization of the industrial society with direct popular control over all institutions by those who participate in as well as those who are directly affected by the workings of these institutions. So one might imagine a system of workers' councils, consumer councils, commune councils, commune assemblies, regional federations, and so on, with the kind of representation that is direct and revocable, in the sense that representatives are directly answerable to and return directly to the well defined and integrated social group for which they speak in some higher order organization, something obviously very different than our system of representation.
(emphasis mine: kjl) 


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The terms "liberal," "libertarian," and "socialist" in typical US political rhetoric usually have drastically different meanings than Chomsky's usage here.


In the last few years, however, I have noticed a less deviant use of the word "socialism" in some prominent US political discourse. Traditionally, the term meant workers' or the public's democratic control of production. With the violent suppression of labor in the US and the adoption of the term by the USSR (a tyrannical and brutal authoritarian state bearing no resemblance to a system of citizen's control), usage in the mainstream was transformed under pervasive US and Soviet ideological campaigns. Both used the term to mean something quite different than democratic control of production.


Lately in the US, however, the word "socialism" is sometimes being used by a faction of prominent figures and a segment of the US public to describe a generally social democratic (not a socialist) agenda, one that's long been favored by the public though seldom advanced through legislation. The social democratic agenda is a call for universal health care, education, a living wage, food and housing security, environmental and climate preservation, etc., not an agenda of public control of production. Amongst the advanced industrial democracies, the social democratic agenda has progressed further outside of the US.


Chomsky's use here of the terms "liberal" and "libertarian" also diverge from typical current US political usage. Describing classical liberal doctrine, he says,

I want to take for granted something that may seem obvious, but is actually controversial - namely that, in speaking of freedom and rights, we have in mind human beings; that is, persons of flesh and blood, not abstract political and legal constructions like corporations, or states, or capital. If these entities have any rights at all, which is questionable, they should be derivative from the rights of people. That's core classical liberal doctrine.

(from talk delivered at the International Relations Center, Feb 26, 2000)

On the difference between the traditional and the US usage of the term "libertarian":

Libertarianism has a special meaning predominantly in the United States. In the United States, it means dedication to extreme forms of tyranny. They don't call it that, but it's basically corporate tyranny, meaning tyranny by unaccountable private concentrations of power, the worst kind of tyranny you can imagine.

It picks up from the libertarian tradition one element, namely opposition to state power. But it leaves open all other forms of - and in fact favors - other forms of coercion and domination. So it's radically opposed to the libertarian tradition, which was opposed to the master-servant relation.