Noam Chomsky is the original libertarian socialist; back when libertarianism was applied to left-wing causes and was carried by names like Nestor Makhno and the CNT-FIA. Chomsky has always been class conscious, and has made his mark in a number of different fields, among them political philosophy.
The class warfare is a constant feature of Chomsky’s outlook; nowhere is this better illustrated than a recent Salon piece, that’s reprinted from the second edition of his book, Occupy: Rebellion, Class War and Solidarity. It run the gamut from organized labor to the Keystone XL pipeline, but of special interest is Chomsky’s take on the class war that’s ongoing in this country right now.
Chomsky notes in the excerpt that you’re not supposed to use the term “working class;” rather, you’re supposed to use the term “middle class,” since middle class helps to “diminish the understanding that there’s a class war going on.” The notion that the middle class is part of the problem isn’t a new one; traditional communist and Marxist philosophy makes not of it, as well. The middle class will always side with the bourgeois over the workers, and by placing the emphasis on them, you shift the emphasis away from the workers. That’s what Chomsky is hitting at, but it goes much deeper; we’ve always been fighting a bitter class war, but it’s rare that it gets recognized as such.
It’s also a one-sided war, as he notes, but that’s only because the other side has chosen not to participate:
It’s true that there was a one-sided class war, and that’s because the other side hadn’t chosen to participate, so the union leadership had for years pursued a policy of making a compact with the corporations, in which their workers, say the autoworkers—would get certain benefits like fairly decent wages, health benefits and so on. But it wouldn’t engage the general class structure. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why Canada has a national health program and the United States doesn’t. The same unions on the other side of the border were calling for health care for everybody. Here they were calling for health care for themselves and they got it. Of course, it’s a compact with corporations that the corporations can break anytime they want, and by the 1970s they were planning to break it and we’ve seen what has happened since.
Chomsky notes the huge benefits given to the very wealthy; calling attention to the obscene salaries CEOs are paid despite being no more productive or brilliant than their European counterparts. The pay, bonuses, and power, he notes, are possibly a drain on the economy, and that concentration of power is one of the reasons why we have “a sequester over the deficit and not over jobs, which is what really matters to the population.” It also illustrates how “shredded” our democracy is:
[T]hey rank people by income level or wages roughly the same: The bottom 70 percent or so are virtually disenfranchised; they have almost no influence on policy, and as you move up the scale you get more influence. At the very top, you basically run the show.
Crucial to balancing the scales, according to Chomsky, is the labor movement:
The case of labor is crucial, because it is the base of organization of any popular opposition to the rule of capital, and so it has to be dismantled. There’s a tax on labor all the time. During the 1920s, the labor movement was virtually smashed by Wilson’s Red Scare and other things. In the 1930s, it reconstituted and was the driving force of the New Deal, with the CIO organizing and so on. By the late 1930s, the business classes were organizing to try to react to this. They began, but couldn’t do much during the war, because things were on hold, but immediately after the war it picked up with the Taft-Hartley Act and huge propaganda campaigns, which had massive effect. Over the years, the effort to undermine the unions and labor generally succeeded. By now, private-sector unionization is very low, partly because, since Reagan, government has pretty much told employers, “You know you can violate the laws, and we’re not going to do anything about it.” Under Clinton, NAFTA offered a method for employers to illegally undermine labor organizing by threatening to move enterprises to Mexico. A number of illegal operations by employers shot up at that time. What’s left are private-sector unions, and they’re under bipartisan attack.
According to Chomsky, caring about others now is a “dangerous idea,”
If you care about other people, that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian” for some wild reason. I mean, it’s actually highly authoritarian, but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.
“That’s why unions had the slogan, ‘solidarity,'” Chomsky notes, adding that “And that’s what really counts: solidarity, mutual aid, care for one another and so on. And it’s really important for power systems to undermine that ideologically, so huge efforts go into it. Even trying to stimulate consumerism is an effort to undermine it . . . Having a market society automatically carries with it an undermining of solidarity. Market systems don’t offer common goods; they offer private consumption. If you want a subway, you’re going to have to get together with other people and make a collective decision. Otherwise, it’s simply not an option within the market system, and as democracy is increasingly undermined, it’s less and less of an option within the public system. All of these things converge, and they’re all part of general class war.”
The part about market societies also highlights, I think, the notion that you can never have the sort of “volunteer society” that libertarians dream of. If your idea of “voluntary participation” is “you participate or you die from starvation/disease/thirst,” then you don’t have a voluntary society. And unless there’s an extensive social safety net– presumably powered by magic, just like everything else deontological libertarians believe — you have a society that’s only “voluntary” to the extent that those at the top possess power to “voluntarily” lord over others.
Our society is the same way; you either work or freeze to death in front of the Capitol. You work or you starve (or, more likely, work and starve, since the two are mutually inclusive). You work or you die (or work and die in the process).
That we don’t call this what it is — organized, self-perpetuating slavery — is testament to how deep in denial we are about this class war.
You can read the whole excerpt here, at Salon.