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Chomsky's Economics

January 6, 2003

Aside from Noam Chomsky's work as a linguist, he is a great critic of US foreign policy, the corporate state, and the media establishment. There is much to criticize in these spheres and Chomsky does so prolifically. He is so prolific a critic that we are inevitably drawn to the question, "What is Noam Chomsky for?"  It is difficult to discern this from his essays and remarks which are overfilled with analysis and criticism.

Why should we care what Chomsky, or any critic, is for?  Simply because if we get rid of that which the critic criticizes, and install the critic's favored form of regime, it just might be worse!  To so conclude does not and would not justify the status quo; it would merely point us away from a particular alternative to the status quo.

It turns out that figuring out what Chomsky is for is not easy. He just doesn't say much about it. He doesn't like what we have now. He disfavors Stalinism and fascism. He despises the libertarian alternative to the present regime, which he calls American libertarianism. So he is not for a minimal state, anarcho-capitalism, or a free market.

He describes Murray Rothbard's vision of a libertarian society as "so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it."  (I will not attempt to dissect this insane remark here except to note how the "anti-authoritarian" Chomsky purports to speak for all human beings.)  He is against any form of capitalism. It goes without saying that he is not a political conservative. But he has repeatedly denounced "Marxism"[1] and fiscal Keynesianism and protectionism as well[2].

What is left? Not much. Chomsky uses the following terms to define himself: libertarian, libertarian socialist, anarchist, and anarcho-syndicalist. It is not clear what any of this means, which is just as well for Chomsky. If it isn't clear what he is for, it is difficult to criticize it. But I will try anyway.

Chomsky follows Marx in opposing the private ownership of the means of production, which he believes permits "elite groups" to :"command resources, based ultimately on their control of the private economy," and ends up excluding the public from "basic decisions concerning production and work."[3]

Let's stop right there. As Ayn Rand so eloquently argued, the ultimate means of production is the human mind. Chomsky of course doesn't want to abolish the private ownership of our minds (I hope.)  What he means is hard capital: machines, buildings and so on. One would think that if private persons and business concerns cannot own these things, the state will do so. We call that state socialism. Chomsky apparently is against that too.

So, if the state isn't going to own income-producing property, and private concerns are not going to own it, who is going to own it?  Apparently, and this all very fuzzy, the means of production will somehow be collectively owned by the workers themselves, wherein we arrive at the silly concept of anarcho-syndicalism. Instead of greedy capitalists owning the corporation, the workers themselves will own it. But it will not be ownership in the form of individual shares that can be sold. That's capitalism.

No, he favors a vague and ill-defined form of collective ownership that the workers will figure out as they bumble and stumble along towards bankruptcy. As Mises writes in Socialism, "as an aim, Syndicalism is so absurd, that speaking generally, it has not found any advocates who dared to write openly and clearly in its favor."

Details aside, imagine how this syndicalism idea would have worked out recently in America. Let's say the workers had the privilege of owning Enron. Giddy syndicalists seem to view ownership of business concerns as always and everywhere a good thing.

But ownership also implies risk and liability, liability for debts and lawsuits. After Enron collapsed into a pile of incomprehensible derivatives, how many workers there wished they co-owned Enron?  Under current law, employers are responsible for the torts and contract breaches of employees. How many workers would want to bear that risk?  

Syndicalists love to dream about what to do with "existing" businesses and how the workers will take control in a putsch. However, that factory was only there in the first place because some greedy capitalist thought he could make a profit selling widgets, and he invested capital he derived from prior savings. How about starting new businesses?  How many workers have the capital to contribute?  How many would risk that capital even if they had it, on a business "run democratically by the workers"?

Chomsky is apparently against the division of labor: "In its early stages, the industrial system required the kind of specialized labor… Now this is no longer true."[4] Here again he follows Marx. We won't have accountants, doctors, carpenters, etc. Rather, (former) carpenters will take their turn at brain surgery; (former) lawyers will build skyscrapers; airplanes will be driven by (former) dental hygienists and so on. Everyone will take turns. There will be plenty of opportunities to work at a mortuary as well.

Chomsky apparently holds to the labor theory of value, another Marxist concept. According to this theory, all the value of a business is contributed by the "workers". That worker we call the owner, apparently contributes nothing. Only someone who never owned a business could believe this preposterous theory. Since the owner contributed nothing to the business, why did the workers show up there in the first place?  

According to the labor theory of value, the workers could have gone to a vacant lot, and produced the same amount of wealth by replicating the same physical actions they undertook working for the greedy capitalist, this time without a building and without any equipment, management, customers or business plan. If we take away the greedy capitalist, these little details must go as well. Just think of Marcel Marceau pretending to work. That's right. You syndicalists pretend to work and we capitalists will pretend to pay you.

Chomsky is apparently against mass production because of its dehumanizing effects on workers. (Does this not also follow Marx? Make a note of that.)  He apparently thinks each worker should spend an inordinate amount of time placing his or her own personal and artistic stamp on those widgets. (How do you do that with a hammer?) Chomsky is oblivious to the fact that such workers would then live in miserable poverty because of their drastically reduced productivity. Right now, people are free to live a Chomskyesque fantasy life. Few do, outside of Bohemia, where they are known as starving artists. Not even Chomsky is Chomskyesque, ensconced as he has been at non-syndicalist MIT, specializing in linguistics, for forty-seven years.

Critical to understanding Chomsky and the syndicalists is the fact that their favored mode of production—worker-owned cooperatives—can lawfully exist in a free market system. They are inefficient of course—dilettantes cannot compete with specialists. They will be limited to those who have an ideological or philosophical commitment to them. Even then, the adherents will be mostly students who, like those who worked for the co-op restaurant I frequented in college, will eventually burn-out from the long hours, the low pay and the hassles of co-owning a business with thirty other amateurs while competing with professional managers and entrepreneurs.

Will the syndicalists do likewise and tolerate capitalists? They rarely talk about this, which is one of the problems with syndicalism and Chomsky. Yet, a reasonable conclusion can be reached. First, if syndicalists will respect private property and capitalism and merely try to compete by setting up their own co-ops, then they might as well be "American libertarians", which they most definitely are not.

Second, Chomsky denies he is a pacifist. Thus, it must be assumed that he would approve the use of force to establish fundamental justice.

Third, it is obvious from his over-heated anti-capitalist rhetoric such as "wage slavery" that he considers capitalism extremely unjust. Fourth, the historical example he cites as best exemplifying his own views—the anarchists in and around Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War—involved the use of a great deal of force to collectivize firms and farms.

Historian Burnett Bolloten, in The Spanish Civil War (1991), quotes a prominent anarchist from the Barcelona region (Catalonia), Diego Abad de Santillan:

"We do not wish to deny that the nineteenth of July [1936] brought with it an overflowing of passions and abuses, a natural phenomenon of the transfer of power from the hands of the privileged to the hands of the people. It is possible that our victory resulted in the death by violence of four or five thousand inhabitants of Catalonia who were listed as rightists and were linked to political or ecclesiastical reaction. But this shedding of blood is the inevitable consequence of a revolution, which, in spite of all barriers, sweeps on like a flood and devastates everything in its path, until it gradually loses its momentum." [pages 52–53]

Thus, based on all the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that Chomsky and the gang are not satisfied with the opportunity to practice syndicalism. No, what they really want is to prevent others who disagree with them from engaging in forms of production based on private property. And, though they rarely say as much, they apparently intend to put their rivals out of business by brute force, deadly if necessary.

That is why, Chomsky's protests notwithstanding, the syndicalists are like their state socialist and Bolshevik cousins after all. Both believe that a worker-run utopia can and must be brought to fruition, by violence if necessary, against the bourgeoisie and anyone else who stands in their way. Is there anything in Mr. Santillan's remarks that Lenin could not have uttered?

Syndicalists are under the delusion that workers' lives will be idyllic once they get rid of their bosses. However, as Mises informs us, the real bosses of the workers, the ones who ultimately determine wages, working conditions and whether the workers are employed at all, are the cold-hearted, greedy and merciless consumers who purchase the workers' output, or choose not to. Thus, the new workers' co-ops will soon experience what any Maalox-chewing business owner already knows—the absolute tyranny that customers in a free market exercise over business firms and their owners.

Silly syndicalism has never gotten far enough to experience that dilemma. Yet, we can well imagine that, faced with this new and harsh reality—inefficient syndicalist firms producing shoddy and over-priced goods that the employees of other such firms do not want—there will be a demand for our old friend, the state, to be brought back into the equation to make sure all these syndicalist products are sold—at gunpoint. These left-wing "libertarians" may call themselves "anarchists" to shock bourgeois society and their parents, but it's all a fraud.

Anarcho-Syndicalism, as seen in action during the Spanish Civil War, is yet another dangerous leftist utopian fantasy. There, the syndicalists tried to abolish money, but ended up using "coupons" (money) instead. They promised to abolish the state, but instead created a bunch of mini-states—"committees." They promised that a new individual freedom would blossom, but what emerged was a frightening new totalitarian control by the committee, over every aspect of life.  As noted by testimonials reported by Burnett Bolloten:

"The committee is the paterfamilias. It owns everything; it directs everything. Every special desire has to be submitted to it for consideration; it alone has the final say."

"If someone has a girl outside the village, can he get money to pay her a visit?  The peasants assure me that he can."

"I tried in vain to get a drink, either of coffee or wine or lemonade. The village bar had been closed as nefarious commerce."

"With the abolition of money, the collective held the upper hand since anyone wishing to travel had to get 'republican' money from the committee."

Bolloten further notes that "Puritanism was a characteristic of the libertarian movement. . . excessive drinking, smoking and other practices that were perceived as middle-class attributes were nearly always censured."  [pages 68–69]  All in all, an inmate at a maximum security prison in New York State today has somewhat more personal freedom than those who lived in Chomsky's "libertarian" paradise.

One of Noam Chomsky's favorite journals when he was young was called Living Marxism. Marxism is dead but Chomsky is still living Marxism. Noam said once, "There are supposed to be laws of economics. I can't understand them."  You are correct, Sir!  I have an offer that Noam should not refuse. If you stay away from economics and political theory, I will stay away from linguistics.

None of this is to take away from Chomsky's contribution to understanding US foreign policy. Chomsky is right to insist that the US be held to strict standards of morality in the conduct of foreign policy, and ought not to be permitted to get away with a double standard.

But standards of morality are no substitute for economic logic. Economics requires study and systematic thinking about the implications of action, choice, and ownership in a world of scarcity. It is a science that delineates the limits of how far the human mind can wander when thinking about what society can and should be. This is one reason that intellectuals, even great ones, take such pains to avoid studying economics, and instead latch on to fantasies like socialism and syndicalism.

Chomsky has said the social scientist has two main tasks: "imagine a future society that conforms to the exigencies of human nature, as best we understand them. The other, to analyze the nature of power and oppression in our present societies." We might add a third: to be open to the possibility that the results of one's investigations could contradict deeply held ideological biases.


James Ostrowski practices law in Buffalo, N.Y. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive and send him MAIL.


[1]  Noam Chomsky, Language and Responsibility (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), p. 74

[2] Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism (Boston: South End Press, 1988), p. 26, 32.

[3]  Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology (Boston: South End Press, 1987), p. 123. See also, this interview.

[4] Noam Chomsky, Radical Priorities (Montreal, Block Rose Books, 1981),  p. 224.


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