Noam Chomsky: What Is the Common Good?

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    Noam Chomsky: What Is the Common Good?

    This article is adapted from a Dewey Lecture by Noam Chomsky at Columbia University in New York on Dec. 6, 2013.

    Humans are social beings, and the kind of creature that a person becomes depends crucially on the social, cultural and institutional circumstances of his life.

    We are therefore led to inquire into the social arrangements that are conducive to people's rights and welfare, and to fulfilling their just aspirations - in brief, the common good.

    For perspective I'd like to invoke what seem to me virtual truisms. They relate to an interesting category of ethical principles: those that are not only universal, in that they are virtually always professed, but also doubly universal, in that at the same time they are almost universally rejected in practice.

    These range from very general principles, such as the truism that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others (if not harsher ones), to more specific doctrines, such as a dedication to promoting democracy and human rights, which is proclaimed almost universally, even by the worst monsters - though the actual record is grim, across the spectrum.

    A good place to start is with John Stuart Mill's classic "On Liberty." Its epigraph formulates "The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges: the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity."

    The words are quoted from Wilhelm von Humboldt, a founder of classical liberalism. It follows that institutions that constrain such development are illegitimate, unless they can somehow justify themselves.

    Concern for the common good should impel us to find ways to cultivate human development in its richest diversity.

    Adam Smith, another Enlightenment thinker with similar views, felt that it shouldn't be too difficult to institute humane policies. In his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" he observed that "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

    Smith acknowledges the power of what he calls the "vile maxim of the masters of mankind": "All for ourselves, and nothing for other people." But the more benign "original passions of human nature" might compensate for that pathology.

    Classical liberalism shipwrecked on the shoals of capitalism, but its humanistic commitments and aspirations didn't die. Rudolf Rocker, a 20th-century anarchist thinker and activist, reiterated similar ideas.

    Rocker described what he calls "a definite trend in the historic development of mankind" that strives for "the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life."

    Rocker was outlining an anarchist tradition culminating in anarcho-syndicalism - in European terms, a variety of "libertarian socialism."

    This brand of socialism, he held, doesn't depict "a fixed, self-enclosed social system" with a definite answer to all the multifarious questions and problems of human life, but rather a trend in human development that strives to attain Enlightenment ideals.

    So understood, anarchism is part of a broader range of libertarian socialist thought and action that includes the practical achievements of revolutionary Spain in 1936; reaches further to worker-owned enterprises spreading today in the American rust belt, in northern Mexico, in Egypt, and many other countries, most extensively in the Basque country in Spain; and encompasses the many cooperative movements around the world and a good part of feminist and civil and human rights initiatives.

    This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself.

    If these structures can't meet that challenge, they should be dismantled - and, anarchists believe, "refashioned from below," as commentator Nathan Schneider observes.

    In part this sounds like truism: Why should anyone defend illegitimate structures and institutions? But truisms at least have the merit of being true, which distinguishes them from a good deal of political discourse. And I think they provide useful stepping stones to finding the common good.

    For Rocker, "the problem that is set for our time is that of freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement."

    It should be noted that the American brand of libertarianism differs sharply from the libertarian tradition, accepting and indeed advocating the subordination of working people to the masters of the economy, and the subjection of everyone to the restrictive discipline and destructive features of markets.

    Anarchism is, famously, opposed to the state, while advocating "planned administration of things in the interest of the community," in Rocker's words; and beyond that, wide-ranging federations of self-governing communities and workplaces.

    Today, anarchists dedicated to these goals often support state power to protect people, society and the earth itself from the ravages of concentrated private capital. That's no contradiction. People live and suffer and endure in the existing society. Available means should be used to safeguard and benefit them, even if a long-term goal is to construct preferable alternatives.

    In the Brazilian rural workers movement, they speak of "widening the floors of the cage" - the cage of existing coercive institutions that can be widened by popular struggle - as has happened effectively over many years.

    We can extend the image to think of the cage of state institutions as a protection from the savage beasts roaming outside: the predatory, state-supported capitalist institutions dedicated in principle to private gain, power and domination, with community and people's interest at most a footnote, revered in rhetoric but dismissed in practice as a matter of principle and even law.

    Much of the most respected work in academic political science compares public attitudes and government policy. In "Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America," the Princeton scholar Martin Gilens reveals that the majority of the U.S. population is effectively disenfranchised.

    About 70 percent of the population, at the lower end of the wealth/income scale, has no influence on policy, Gilens concludes. Moving up the scale, influence slowly increases. At the very top are those who pretty much determine policy, by means that aren't obscure. The resulting system is not democracy but plutocracy.

    Or perhaps, a little more kindly, it's what legal scholar Conor Gearty calls "neo-democracy," a partner to neoliberalism - a system in which liberty is enjoyed by the few, and security in its fullest sense is available only to the elite, but within a system of more general formal rights.

    In contrast, as Rocker writes, a truly democratic system would achieve the character of "an alliance of free groups of men and women based on cooperative labor and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community."

    No one took the American philosopher John Dewey to be an anarchist. But consider his ideas. He recognized that "Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country," even if democratic forms remain. Until those institutions are in the hands of the public, politics will remain "the shadow cast on society by big business," much as is seen today.

    These ideas lead very naturally to a vision of society based on workers' control of productive institutions, as envisioned by 19th century thinkers, notably Karl Marx but also - less familiar - John Stuart Mill.

    Mill wrote, "The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected to predominate, is . the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers electable and removable by themselves."

    The Founding Fathers of the United States were well aware of the hazards of democracy. In the Constitutional Convention debates, the main framer, James Madison, warned of these hazards.

    Naturally taking England as his model, Madison observed that "In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place," undermining the right to property.

    The basic problem that Madison foresaw in "framing a system which we wish to last for ages" was to ensure that the actual rulers will be the wealthy minority so as "to secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality & universality of suffrage, vesting compleat power over property in hands without a share in it."

    Scholarship generally agrees with the Brown University scholar Gordon S. Wood's assessment that "The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period."

    Long before Madison, Artistotle, in his "Politics," recognized the same problem with democracy.

    Reviewing a variety of political systems, Aristotle concluded that this system was the best - or perhaps the least bad - form of government. But he recognized a flaw: The great mass of the poor could use their voting power to take the property of the rich, which would be unfair.

    Madison and Aristotle arrived at opposite solutions: Aristotle advised reducing inequality, by what we would regard as welfare state measures. Madison felt that the answer was to reduce democracy.

    In his last years, Thomas Jefferson, the man who drafted the United States' Declaration of Independence, captured the essential nature of the conflict, which has far from ended. Jefferson had serious concerns about the quality and fate of the democratic experiment. He distinguished between "aristocrats and democrats."

    The aristocrats are "those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes."

    The democrats, in contrast, "identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interest."

    Today the successors to Jefferson's "aristocrats" might argue about who should play the guiding role: technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals, or bankers and corporate executives.

    It is this political guardianship that the genuine libertarian tradition seeks to dismantle and reconstruct from below, while also changing industry, as Dewey put it, "from a feudalistic to a democratic social order" based on workers' control, respecting the dignity of the producer as a genuine person, not a tool in the hands of others.

    Like Karl Marx's Old Mole - "our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, then suddenly to emerge" - the libertarian tradition is always burrowing close to the surface, always ready to peek through, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways, seeking to bring about what seems to me to be a reasonable approximation to the common good.


    ? 2014 Noam Chomsky
    Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

    Noam Chomsky | What Is the Common Good?
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Another Chomsky quote......



    "It is all working quite well for the rich and powerful. In the US, for example, tens of millions are unemployed, unknown millions have dropped out of the workforce in despair, and incomes as well as conditions of life have largely stagnated or declined. But the big banks, which were responsible for the latest crisis, are bigger and richer than ever, corporate profits are breaking records, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice is accumulating among those who count, labor is severely weakened by union busting and ?growing worker insecurity,? to borrow the term Alan Greenspan used in explaining the grand success of the economy he managed, when he was still ?St. Alan,? perhaps the greatest economist since Adam Smith, before the collapse of the structure he had administered, along with its intellectual foundations. So what is there to complain about?"

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    I contend that this experiment was figured out a long, long time ago. These guys know exactly what they're doing !!

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    Quote Originally Posted by IronAddict View Post
    I contend that this experiment was figured out a long, long time ago. These guys know exactly what they're doing !!
    When you analyze US policy everything (in terms of policy enacted) that has been done here in past decades has been implemented elsewhere in the world first in one country or another.

    They know exactly what they are doing, nothing done at the Federal level is a "mistake".
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Great post. The concern for the common good has often been erased in favor of the concern for acquisition of the almighty dollar. In our society we measure success in terms of wealth instead of respecting intellectual achievement and innovation designed for the benefit of all rather than the benefit of a few. I'd recommend Owen Wilson's "The Outsider" as a work that focuses on the cultural importance of the struggle for the development of the self in order to affect real and genuine change for the society as a whole, a struggle most often exemplified by artists and people searching for genuine truth as opposed to the acquisition of wealth at any cost.

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    Chomsky is a man that every American should read - and you do not have to agree with him 100%.
    It's an accurate statement that our current spending will not be increasing the debt We've stopped spending money that we don't have.

    -- Jack Lew, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, in Feb. 16, 2011 testimony before the Senate Budget Committee.

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    socialism is for the common good. everyone can share in its misery equally.
    -S-

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swiper View Post
    socialism is for the common good. everyone can share in its misery equally.
    spoken like a true radical, that only recognizes the extremes. Have you ever heard of the "grey area" that lies between them? LMAO
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    spoken like a true radical, that only recognizes the extremes. Have you ever heard of the "grey area" that lies between them? LMAO
    lol. what's good about Socialism?

    You mean the grey area where govt fucks up everything it gets involved with? you have way too much faith in govt. but that's expected from people like you who need govt holding your hand for cradle to grave because you don't believe in having any personal responsibilities. LOL.
    -S-

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swiper View Post
    lol. what's good about Socialism?

    You mean the grey area where govt fucks up everything it gets involved with? you have way too much faith in govt. but that's expected from people like you who need govt holding your hand for cradle to grave because you don't believe in having any personal responsibilities. LOL.
    Where exactly is this socialism that you speak of where the means of production is not privately held in the US? Your so ignorant about economics it's comical "debating" with you is like arguing with a child.

    All you know is right wing talking points which have been spoon fed to you since birth from watching tv your entire lifetime, it's pathetic.

    blah..blah..blah..socialism, blah...blah..socialism, blah..blah..soclialism...LOL

    learn a new world kid, because you don't even understand the meaning of that one!
    Last edited by LAM; 01-08-2014 at 02:28 PM.
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swiper View Post
    socialism is for the common good. everyone can share in its misery equally.
    As opposed to the clusterfuck we have right now where 99% share the misery and 1% live in luxury?
    If gunners were as violent as anti-gunners believe, logically there wouldn't be any anti-gunners left.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    Where exactly is this socialism that you speak of where the means of production is not privately held in the US? Your so ignorant about economics it's comical "debating" with you is like arguing with a child.

    All you know is right wing talking points which have been spoon fed to you since birth from watching tv your entire lifetime, it's pathetic.

    blah..blah..blah..socialism, blah...blah..socialism, blah..blah..soclialism...LOL

    learn a new world kid, because you don't even understand the meaning of that one!
    re read my post and reply accordingly.
    -S-

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zaphod View Post
    As opposed to the clusterfuck we have right now where 99% share the misery and 1% live in luxury?
    yes same thing, it's called socialism.

    Socialism: Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
    -S-

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swiper View Post
    yes same thing, it's called socialism.

    Socialism: Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
    Going by this every form of government is socialism.
    If gunners were as violent as anti-gunners believe, logically there wouldn't be any anti-gunners left.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swiper View Post
    yes same thing, it's called socialism.

    Socialism: Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
    your forgetting one thing, the government doesn't produce or distribute goods in the US that is a function of the private sector. Or do you go shopping at your local federal building or government office complex? Because the rest of us go to stores or the mall you know.
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Noam Chomsky is brilliant and dead on, but god damn I find him boring. I bet if he was a little more charismatic he could get that message out better. I get groggy when I read him or listen to him.

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    Quote Originally Posted by NoviceAAS View Post
    Noam Chomsky is brilliant and dead on, but god damn I find him boring. I bet if he was a little more charismatic he could get that message out better. I get groggy when I read him or listen to him.
    It's about what one should expect from a linguist. While I don't read that much of his work, when I do it's easy to see why the mainstream media wants no part of him. Only in American can the worlds most highly cited living scholar NOT be of high demand in regards to discussions that pertain to politics and foreign policy.
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    It's about what one should expect from a linguist. While I don't read that much of his work, when I do it's easy to see why the mainstream media wants no part of him. Only in American can the worlds most highly cited living scholar NOT be of high demand in regards to discussions that pertain to politics and foreign policy.
    So then one must wonder if Plato was alive today, would anyone listen to him ?

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    That's why people like him aren't in politics, too damn smart.
    Why if he were to be, he'd be a buzz kill, kinda like Jimmy Carter.

    Politicians now a days are so dumbed down its absurd. Of course, they have to gain the votes of the people they mean to represent.

    Were so bass ackwards over here we'd rather have a guy because he seems cool enough to have a beer with.
    Never mind he's a dry drunk, a violent mutha phuquin drunk.....

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    Quote Originally Posted by NoviceAAS View Post
    So then one must wonder if Plato was alive today, would anyone listen to him ?
    Most people probably wouldn't, not in the US. People want to read things that are easy, entertaining, etc. and that's not philosophy or political commentary, etc.
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by IronAddict View Post
    That's why people like him aren't in politics, too damn smart.
    Why if he were to be, he'd be a buzz kill, kinda like Jimmy Carter.

    Politicians now a days are so dumbed down its absurd. Of course, they have to gain the votes of the people they mean to represent.

    Were so bass ackwards over here we'd rather have a guy because he seems cool enough to have a beer with.
    Never mind he's a dry drunk, a violent mutha phuquin drunk.....
    US media is designed for readers at an 8th grade comprehension level, that's fucking pathetic. I mean I guess it makes sense since most people stop reading once they are no longer in school, so comprehension levels would naturally decline with age, etc. they have to dum everything down.

    Makes me think of the movie Precious in the one scene when that girl had no fucking clue what the white people were talking about..LOL
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    A good place to start is with John Stuart Mill's classic "On Liberty." Its epigraph formulates "The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges: the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity."
    Many of these guys, including Dawkins, Hitchens, Peter Singer, are just rehashing utilitarianism. It's a shitty fairy-tale morality riddled with holes. It's certainly more logically rigorous than religious morality but is still predicated on a faulty foundation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by troubador View Post
    Many of these guys, including Dawkins, Hitchens, Peter Singer, are just rehashing utilitarianism. It's a shitty fairy-tale morality riddled with holes. It's certainly more logically rigorous than religious morality but is still predicated on a faulty foundation.
    yep, just another type of non-reality based ideology which neglects to factor in the human condition.
    William F. Buckley describes a conservative as, "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." - and then proceeds to drag civilization back to times best left in history's dungheap.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    Most people probably wouldn't, not in the US. People want to read things that are easy, entertaining, etc. and that's not philosophy or political commentary, etc.
    and some people just want to watch YouTube videos. lol.
    -S-

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    Quote Originally Posted by LAM View Post
    Most people probably wouldn't, not in the US. People want to read things that are easy, entertaining, etc. and that's not philosophy or political commentary, etc.

    ...I resemble that remark...


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    Quote Originally Posted by charley View Post
    That's ironically incorrect.

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    Libertarian socialism is an interesting philosophy. No it is not a contradiction. The original libertarians were socialists.

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