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Chomsky: How Can We Escape the Curse of Economic Exploitation?

'All for ourselves, and nothing for other people,' can't be the motto of a functioning society.
 
 
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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.

 
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