A Narrow Band of Liberties

Glen Newey

  • Profit over People: Neo-Liberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories, 175 pp, £26.00, October 1998, ISBN 1 888363 82 7
  • Acts of Aggression: Policing ‘Rogue’ States by Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, edited by Edward Said
    Seven Stories, 62 pp, £4.99, May 1999, ISBN 1 58322 005 4
  • The Umbrella of US Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of US Policy by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories, 78 pp, £3.99, December 1998, ISBN 1 888363 85 1
  • The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo by Noam Chomsky
    Pluto, 199 pp, £30.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7453 1633 6

In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an admirable passage about the stubborn human tendency to ‘fill’, the fact that a good part of human life, in politics as elsewhere, is devoted to ‘plugging up holes’. Holes are vacant, and the humdrum psychopathy of political life seeks them out, in the cause of repletion – by contrast, the bore of omnipresence, as Sartre implies later when speculating about what life as the Almighty must be like, is that you just don’t get out enough. The Balkan hole-plugging exercise carried out by the US was power-play thinly disguised as moralism. Some truisms can’t be reiterated often enough, and we have anarchists like Noam Chomsky to thank for one of them: when the powerful talk of ‘liberation’, you can be sure that somewhere, in a state near you, odd-jobmen and peasants in uniform are clapping on the cangue and bilboes. Under what global dispensation could the abuse of power be subjected to any effective check? This question becomes the more obvious when the choice is between a behemoth and a monotreme, or as they are also respectively known, the US and the UN. The error, as others besides anarchists can see, lies in the thought that morality could be enforced by political power, and is the more glaring when the form that power takes is force majeure. Contra Thomas Nagel and other US liberals, leaders who can segue fluently from blowjob to prayer-breakfast should give us pause for thought. The gospelling blag takes a darker turn in ‘the new military humanism’ or, in other words, killing people as an act of charity. The propensity of morality to efface itself grows directly in step with its reliance on power to get what it demands. Understood as a datum of the political life, anarchism is not merely true, but a truism.

After all, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger aren’t the likeliest incarnations of Kant’s ‘moral politician’. These grotesques manifest what in private life would amount to a criminal tendency. And given the less than intergalactic psychic distance between political and random violence, some wise fools might wonder whether there was that much to choose between the vigilant readiness of the Nato leaders and a psychopathic tendency. The euphemism used in Nato briefing-speak to accentuate the gap was ‘bringing the Serbs into compliance’. Kant’s political idealism and wised-up Machiavellian cynicism about political thuggery are not enemies, but bedfellows, and the rutilant dicta of the Dear Leaders are their misbegotten by-blow – as in the well-known military annex to the Rambouillet accords, discussed by Chomsky in The New Military Humanism, demanding Milosevic’s assent to the allied Anschluss of Serbia as a condition of ‘compliance’.

Chomsky – like a lot of contemporary political theorists – sees one half of this predicament clearly: the half which shows the use of power as surd and brute. What about the other half? It is not the banality that the world is not all that nice, or that those who help to run states are often not people you’d want round for a cup of Earl Grey and a garibaldi. It is that power, and the fall-out from its use, is not just a bit of bad luck, to be put behind us in some happier future state of the world. Our misery is endemic. It takes its rise from what Hobbes called a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. Hobbes’s state of nature is often thought to rest on controversial claims about human nature, but does not really do so – in a Hobbesian world, where there are no coercive structures, where the things which people value (such as security) are relatively scarce, and more of them can be got by deceit than co-operation, conflict must ensue. The choice is not between power and nothing, but between power and power.

This suggests that the landscape is more restricted than it may look. Two main views of international law currently circulate. One sees the limits of state obligation as drawn by self-interest: they’re taken to encompass a limited degree of altruism by citizens towards their compatriots, but not to extend as far as the woaded inhabitants of ‘bongo-bongo land’, or even the members of the next Neighbourhood Watch. The other view takes it that international law is an applied branch of natural law, construed in more or less explicitly moralistic terms; its rhetorical progeny includes the ‘ethical foreign policy’, making the world ‘safe for democracy’, the ‘New World Order’ and Operation ‘Just Cause’. To be sure, this second view has enjoyed greater entrée of late in the modish salons. But the two are not so unalike, granted the premise that ethical egoism prevails in international relations. Pre-Kosovo it was asked what ‘we’ should do, the assumption being that ‘we’ should ‘do something’ about Milosevic, and that nothing ‘we’ could do could be worse than nothing. The post-history of the Kosovo campaign indicates otherwise: accelerated ethnic cleansing, inaccurate bombing with collateral damage, an embittered Serbia, the less than staggering revelation that estimates of the killings of ethnic Albanians were wildly exaggerated in the prelude to the war (100,000 against a verified total of 3000, according to a recent report). Whatever else is to be made of Milosevic’s recent replacement (by another hardline Serb nationalist), it’s not plausibly seen as an outpouring of gratitude by the Serbian people towards Nato for having bombed them.

Statism has its devotees in the cloister as well as the torture-room. William Edmundson’s recent Three Anarchical Fallacies argues that anarchists are committed to thinking not only that there is no obligation on citizens to obey the state, but also that belief in the legitimacy of the state entails the existence of such an obligation; and argues further that since anarchists deny the legitimacy of the state but only succeed in showing there is no such obligation, they are embarrassed by the failure of this entailment. But it’s hard to see why. Many simply identify anarchism with the denial that an obligation to obey the state exists. And even those who think that it means denying that the state is legitimate and accept that the entailment fails, can argue on other grounds that the state is illegitimate. One ground for saying this, apparently endorsed by Chomsky and certainly held by anarchists like Robert Paul Wolff, is that coercion itself – the state’s big shtick – is never justified. The truth is not that power corrupts, but that power’s rationale is corruption, and the best to be hoped for from its use is not that it makes people better, but that it mitigates the worst effects of their being bad.

This brings us to the main uses of power in the classical liberal or, in Robert Nozick’s phrase, the ‘night-watchman’ state. Here, as elsewhere, Chomsky’s position amounts to an immanent critique of liberalism, not its outright rejection. The complement to negative liberty is the ‘laissez-faire state’, not to be confused with an agency fostering free competition. One useful function which Profit over People serves is to expose the ideology of ‘Neo-Liberalism’, or the belief that recent decades have seen the state’s withdrawal from the economy. Chomsky does a good job of nailing the aptly-misnamed Nafta (the North American Free Trade Association), hailed by the lumpen-commentariat as a great leap forward in the march towards economic ‘liberalisation’. State intervention also surfaces in cartels like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the Helms-Burton Act and the proliferation of ‘industry regulators’ to prevent post-privatisation monopolies, both natural and unnatural, from becoming what they are. ‘Free competition’, whether or not the result of privatisation, means quasi-monopolies or cartels in water, gas, telecoms, supermarkets, bookmaking, air and rail travel, food distribution, bookselling and newspapers. Far from diffusing power, the effect of laissez-faire in developed capitalism is to hand power to those oligarchies which can mobilise large volumes of capital, with a rhetorical fig-leaf afforded by phrases like ‘share-holding democracy’ or, in what is now an antique idiom, ‘stake-holding’.

In a time long past, when walls crumbled and squinting prophets were paid heed to, history was held to end at an odd point: where debate over control of resources began. The 20th century offered two bad essays at this, corporate capitalism and corporate Communism. Nobody today who’s not out on day-release can think that either offers a refulgent example of democratic control over productive resources, though much recent propaganda, including the decalogue brought down by Fukuyama from Mount RandCorp, sought to persuade otherwise. In the old days in the UK, talk of the ‘union bloc vote’ brimmed many an op-ed bucket, with less about bloc control of plcs, leveraged buy-outs, asset-stripping or fund-managers’ domination of investment decisions. One might mention, for example, the mass poisonings by Union Carbide, Exxon, Shell or the asbestos outfit T & N – not to speak of fag manufacturers. The problem, though, is not merely a matter of ‘externalities’, but is internal to laissez-faire liberalism itself.

A bracing corrective to this is a 1977 letter from the US National Peach Council which I turned up recently while researching mendacity in public life. The Peach people wrote to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in response to the banning by Federal authorities of the widely used pesticide DBCP, when tests suggested that it caused sterility in workers and was probably carcinogenic. Registering its protest against the ban, the Peach Council stated that ‘while involuntary sterility caused by a manufactured chemical may be bad, it is not necessarily so. After all, there are many people now paying to have themselves sterilised … could workers be advised of the situation some might volunteer for such works posts as an alternative to planned surgery for a vasectomy.’ As they say, it’s an ill wind. Or take the notorious memorandum originally deemed to be non-actionable in the Ford Pinto case. The Pinto’s fuel tank was sited between the rear axle and the back of the car, which caused it to burst into flames and incinerate its occupants when struck at speed from behind. The memos showed that once the safety liability came to light, Ford executives had performed a cost-benefit sum showing that it would be cheaper – more ‘efficient’ – to invest money in a trust fund and use the proceeds to pay compensation to the relatives of those incinerated, rather than pay to recall the cars. The spirit of Bentham’s ‘felicific calculus’ lives on.

The interests involved are of course powerful enough to fund their cheerleaders in academe. As Chomsky has noted elsewhere, the inkling, never more than dim, that the academic class forms a fifth estate rising nobly above the ruck of political preferment is itself a symptom of the ideology. One who plays Flimnap to the King of Lilliput is Anthony Giddens of the LSE. Writing a while ago of the cosmically vacant notion of globalisation, he remarked that ‘a million dollars is a lot of money for most people. A stack of [presumably one thousand] thousand-dollar notes would be eight inches high. A billion dollars – in other words, a thousand million – would stand higher than St Paul’s Cathedral. A trillion dollars – a million million – would be over 120 miles high, twenty times higher than Mount Everest.’ Fancy that. It’s hard to suppress a mental image of Giddens toiling away in the small hours to bring this passage to birth, armed only with an abacus, ruler and a wad of Monopoly notes. This vac-yak, fully in keeping with the ‘third way’, ‘radical centre’ and ‘zero tolerance’, offers conceptual mood-music to drown out the din of the souk.

Chomsky has made a lengthy stand against this importunity. Profit over People shows the depth of his ambivalence about classical liberalism. He argues at length, and rightly, that deference to ‘free competition’ is often barely more than phatic. He writes as if state cartelisation were a matter for regret. But the favoured alternative seems to be a fully competitive or deregulated market. Is this really what Chomsky wants? It’s hard to say. It’s fair enough to point out the none too invisible hand of US state interventionism, as in the decades-long Cuban blockade, or Clinton’s 1996 embargo on imported Mexican tomatoes imposed to cushion Florida growers from competition. But presumably what Chomsky wants is not wholehearted, rather than merely half-arsed, Hayekism. His well-developed Cassandra complex is apt to resist probing on this, as on other matters. If producerco-operatives are the alternative to General Motors, we need to know not only how we get from here to there, but how to remain there once we’ve arrived. How are markets kept ‘free’ without a powerful central authority, and how are feckless or luckless producers protected against the contagious blasts of competition?

CChomsky repudiates market Neo-Liberalism while strongly supporting classical liberal values of political self-determination. This modest complexity has proved too much for some. In his Logic and Language, the linguistician Geoffrey Sampson writes: ‘Chomsky claims that syntax refutes liberalism, but the claim fails; Chomsky ignores semantics, and semantics strongly supports liberalism.’ This crams an impressive freight of boo-boos into one terse misapprehension. Chomsky is not uninterested in semantics, as a glance at his linguistic writings shows, and has nowhere to my knowledge addressed, let alone expressed, the crass judgment that ‘syntax refutes liberalism’ – certainly Sampson cites no source. One reason for his not doing so is that Chomsky in his published writings and interviews is usually cautious about attempts to link his linguistic and political work. But, more obviously, he has no wish to ‘refute’ liberalism, least of all by ‘syntax’ (how?). By contrast, Sampson’s own ‘liberal’ credentials are borne out by his own diatribe delivered a few years back, when he argued that losers in the market lotto would be allowed to ‘sink or swim’ – or, in other words, die in the streets. That this bold development in social policy was, on his own advocacy, to be waged in the name of Hayekian ‘efficiency’ – compare again the Ford and peach executives – seemed not to excite Sampson’s sense of irony. Chomsky’s classical liberalism in the Millian and Humboldtian mould, to which he often refers, shows itself very clearly in his defence of the French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson, which led to the madcap claim by Werner Cohn’s ‘Americans for a Safe Israel’ that Chomsky was a neo-Nazi fellow-traveller, or that he was ‘agnostic’ himself about the Holocaust.

Though it’s sometimes said that there is no link between his linguistic work and his political activism, Chomsky himself has from time to time – under prodding from interviewers – drawn speculative connections between them. Perhaps it is possible to construct a liberal argument from what James McGilvray calls linguistic ‘internalism’ and ‘nativism’. Internalism is the rejection of linguistic behaviourism. It denies that a language-user’s competence can be reduced to observable linguistic performance. Nativism holds that linguistic development brings into play an innate competence. So the innate ability to discriminate the conditions in which terms apply, and form judgments on the basis of them, seems peculiarly resistant to external coercion, and this (as in Locke’s main argument for freedom of conscience in the Letter Concerning Toleration, which holds that belief cannot be changed by force) might be thought to ground a form of liberalism.

A similar strategy is to derive freedom from the conditions on concept-use. I can only understand my capacity to use concepts as free to the extent that I can apply them by using my own judgment. And, in what is only superficially a paradox, I do this to the extent that I see my judgment as determined by relevant features of the situation. Of course I can simply decide to apply a word arbitrarily, but that’s not the point. Once I understand my capacity for judgment in applying concepts like this, I must see myself as someone whose assent cannot be gerrymandered by outside coercion (contrast the analogue to this, where someone just gets me to mouth words expressing a proposition to which I cannot conscientiously assent). This is a logical cannot. I can apply the word ‘kazoo’ to objects other than kazoos, but as far as the concept kazoo goes, my withers are unwrung – nothing has changed what’s true of (and what I can believe about) kazoos. So the freedom I enjoy in applying concepts is a kind of immunity from coercion. But these observations do not seem by themselves to license any normative conclusions, since the linguistic phenomena readily coexist with sharp de facto curbs on free discussion. An incidental benefit of such a regime may be that it stops people thinking too much, the ageless recipe of the Pontifical See.

The philosopher Fred d’Agostino suggests a different tack. The missing link between Chomsky’s linguistic and political philosophy can be found in communities of language-users. The simplest version of the thought is that language, despite being rule-governed both at a surface and at a ‘deep’ level, furnishes resources for a (happily democratic, because universal) creative capacity, and a model for free, non-zero-sum, transactions. The communities are made up of freely co-operating individuals, where action is guided by norms which spontaneously emerge, are voluntarily accepted, and by which their members can act freely and creatively. The fact that this linguistic creativity is universal is one of Chomsky’s prime reasons for thinking that facility with ‘deep’ syntactic structures must be innate. Linguistic communities are produced and re-produced without external force, and so are cheering for anarcho-syndicalists. We should not entirely forget the Académie Française, or the indices verborum prohibitorum drawn up in recent years on US campuses to stifle the profane – but here, as always, the linguistic censors arrive on the scene after the fact. So how well does the analogy stand up?

Not very well, but it has to be followed through a fair way before it becomes clear why not. One counter-argument would be that the analogy ignores the distinction between syntax and semantics. The innate capacities which Chomsky claims to identify are syntactic ones, but the level on which linguistic creativity becomes important is semantic – that we can have significant novel thoughts. This however ignores the fact that the analogy is just that. And even if what matters to us is creatively manifested in semantic patterning, this does not mean that the creative capacities could exist without a parallel syntactic facility. The real problem, in common with arguments from analogy generally, is that they claim to point out a parallel when the very fact that there’s the need for an argument at all offers a strong prima facie ground for doubting that a clinching parallel exists. The human tendency towards uniformity in thought, even when no overt coercion is applied, remains sobering – compare the ovine screeds written in the ‘free’ press about the British Royal Family.

One reason for doubting that linguistic arguments for Chomsky’s brand of liberalism take us very far – and I have already noted his own doubts about whether there are any such arguments – is the convincingness of his exposé of the accommodations made by the culture of free expression with ‘liberal’ opinion-managers. Some cast doubt on this. It is, however, apparent to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the scribble-biz. A recent article I published in a UK newspaper began: ‘Well before the century of Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler, toleration was getting a bad press.’ In the copy as submitted, Pol Pot’s spot had originally been occupied (a cheap shot, no doubt) by that fitting heir to the dignity of Henry Addington and Chuter Ede, the current Home Secretary. I was told, even as Pol was being shoehorned into Jack’s boots: you know how it is, our people have to talk to their people; what if our political editor has to shmooze with Jack after he’s choked on the Himmler gibe that same morning? Having naively believed that Secretary Straw had more pressing claims on his time, I was left to savour alone the irony that the pruned piece argued that the blue pencil enjoys a stealthy but healthy afterlife in the ‘liberal’ democracies (this organ stands, I need hardly add, as a proud rebuke to its rivals). Another critic of my acquaintance was debarred from suggesting, correctly, in a review of Warren Beatty’s Bulworth published in the Murdoch press, that the film’s mildly heterodox take on US politics might have survived the cutting-room only because Beatty had the film’s backers Fox (another nag from the Murdoch stable) over a contractual barrel.

The standard liberal model upholds the values of democracy, equality and political liberty, including political participation and free expression of opinion. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But there are awkward facts to be faced. Most significant – though hardly controversial – is that unchecked laissez-faire causes marked inequalities in resources, and that when this happens, those who are better off usually act to try and stop the worse-off from improving their lot, particularly when the better-off have to give up resources. This means that large corporations wield undemocratic influence over public policy, and political control passes to whoever has the wherewithal. One aspect, though only one, of this is the corruption of political debate, including the foreshortening of political options, and curbs on free expression. By mechanisms which Chomsky described well in Manufacturing Consent, debate is bounded, concerns are selected and perceptions channelled. Then there is the patent fact that the exercise of freedom depends on control of resources, so that when the latter are unequally distributed, as under laissez-faire, the exercise of freedoms will be as well. A good example of this, noted by Chomsky in a Times letter a while ago, is the UK libel law, freely exploited by the rich (Maxwell, Archer, Aitken etc) in order to gag dissent.

In conjunction with these plausible facts, the liberal commitment to equal basic liberties, such as freedom of speech and others, is unsustainable in practice. The attempt to hold the line between political liberties, equal for all, and command of resources, permitted to fluctuate to an arbitrary degree of inequality, is certain to fail. The wholly foreseeable effect of this is that the capacity to exercise even the narrow band of liberties countenanced by traditional liberalism is very unequally distributed (it is of no more than verbal interest whether we say that the liberties themselves are unequal, or merely the chance to enjoy them). This calls into doubt the liberal commitment to the value of equality itself, even as narrowly understood. And it stymies democracy, both by straitening the people’s competence as sovereign, and by subverting the equality of political rights on which democracy depends. The effects of this are plain to view in laissez-faire polities on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the other parts of the world where the writ of the Atlantic democracies runs. So it seems we have to conclude that Chomsky is right, and that the laissez-faire model is indeed incoherent.