The Beginning of History

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

Noam Chomsky

THERE IS LITTLE need to comment on Francis Fukuyama’s illusions [“The End of History—ed.] about contemporary history and American society. But in the background, there lie real issues that do merit attention.

The libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment confronted serious obstacles. They are inconsistent with basic structural principles of capitalism, for familiar reasons. They are negated outright by modem totalitarianism, in its Bolshevik or fascist variants. The same barriers stood in the way of the socialist currents that were one prominent expression of these libertarian ideals.

The Bolshevik coup of 1917 quickly destroyed all working-class and other popular organizations, including soviets, factory councils and the constituent assembly. Since that time, both of the major world propaganda systems have described this destruction of socialist elements as a victory of socialism. For western capitalism, the purpose is to defame socialism by associating it with Moscow’s tyranny; for the Bolsheviks, the purpose was to gain legitimacy by

This two-pronged ideological assault, combined with other devices available to those with real power, have dealt a severe blow to libertarian socialist currents that once had considerable vitality, though the popular commitments to such ideals constantly reveal themselves in many ways. Lenin’s successors have repeatedly intervened by force to block manifestations of freedom, democracy and socialism.

The concerted assault on the Spanish revolution in 1936-37 provides a dramatic illustration of the intense fear of popular democracy and freedom on the part of the leadership of the Soviet Union, the fascist states and the Western democracies. One current illustration is the U.S. crusade against democracy in Central America in the 1980s, undertaken to establish terror states effectively run by the U.S.-backed military, who, with complete impunity, engage in mass murder, torture, disappearance, destruction of independent media and violent demolition of popular organizations that might provide the basis for authentic democracy.

The real concerns of Western elites are also revealed in the fierce hostility to Nicaragua, where nothing remotely comparable has happened, but where the political system does not qualify as “democratic” because it fails to guarantee the rule of business, oligarchy and military elements that faithfully serve U.S. elite interests. The U.S. client states meet this condition and are therefore “democracies.”

The 1984 elections in Nicaragua were far more free and legitimate than those in the U.S. terror states and were ratified by a host of observers from Western governments and the professional association of U.S. Latin American scholars. But such voices, which drew entirely the wrong conclusions, were censored out of the corporate media. Within the narrowly bounded U.S. ideological system, the elections did not take place; and exactly as in 1984, Washington is now dedicating its efforts to disrupting the elections that have been scheduled for 1990, and will declare them illegitimate if its massive intervention fails to bring victory to its clients.

These typical examples of hostility to democracy, freedom and human rights are entirely understandable in the light of the distribution of power. It is no less understandable that conventional ideology should construct a very different picture, better suited to the needs of the owners and managers of the state capitalist societies.

Within capitalist democracy, control over resources and investment ensures that departures from business rule are limited. The reduction of democracy to empty forms is particularly advanced in the United States. Here, much of the intellectual community and a huge public-relations industry have dedicated their efforts to what some call “the manufacture of consent,” recognizing that when the state lacks power to coerce, it is the task of intellectuals to provide “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” to keep the ignorant rabble from interfering with rule by the privileged.

U.S. political history is largely a record of competition between groups of investors who compete for state management. In reality, there is one political party, business-based, with two factions. Popular structures such as labor unions, which might provide isolated individuals with a way to contest centralized political power, barely exist.

By the 1980s, even elections had become largely an empty ritual. There is scarcely a pretense that the 1988 elections involved any issues. In his “landslide victories” of 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan received under a third of the electoral vote, and a majority of the Reagan voters opposed his programs. The myth of the popularity of the “Great Communicator” was put to rest as soon as Reagan was no longer available to read his lines.

In Congress, virtually all incumbents are re-elected, another indication of the decline of the formal electoral process. The general population is aware that the political system does not respond to its interests. About half the public, when asked in polls who runs the country, answer: “a few big interests looking out for themselves.”

By the 1980s, Bolshevism and capitalism were in serious decline, along with meaningful democracy. The stagnation of the Bolshevik command economy was recognized by Mikhail Gorbachev and motivates his reform efforts. The “economic miracles” of the First World depart radically from free-market capitalism. The facts are particularly clear in the case of Japan and the “Four Tigers” in its periphery. Their economies are coordinated by the state and a few industrial-financial conglomerates in a system resembling fascism more than capitalism, and democratic forms are very limited.

In the United States, the two sectors of the economy that survive international competition are high-technology industry and capital-intensive agriculture. Both are heavily subsidized by the state. One primary purpose of the Pentagon system is to ensure that the public provides a guaranteed market for waste production and pays the costs of research and development, while profits accrue to the private sector. The scope extends to most of advanced technology. For this reason, business has always been troubled by “peace scares,” and now fears what the Wall Street Journal calls “the unsettling specter of peace” as Gorbachev seems intent on pursuing his reforms.

Meanwhile, the bipolar system that emerged from World War ills eroding. Since the late 1950s, both superpowers have been declining in their power to coerce and control. The Vietnam War proved to be a severe blow to the U.S. economy. In contrast, Europe and Japan enriched themselves through their participation in the destruction of Indochina, exactly as they had done during the Korean war. The world is continuing a drift toward three major economic blocs: the German-based European community, the Japan-centered Pacific system and the U.S.-controlled dollar bloc.

The United States has always feared that Europe might strike an independent course, failing to understand that it is to limit itself to “regional interests” within the “overall framework of order” managed by the United States, as Henry Kissinger explained to his European audience. Now, there is much concern that Europe and Japan may forge trade and investment relations with the Soviet Union and its satellites, possibly even entering U.S. spheres in the Middle East and Latin America from which Europe had been expelled during and after World War II.

U.S. business is highly class conscious and from the early 1970s has been conducting a determined class war to increase corporate profits, undermine labor organizations and dismantle the limited welfare state. Since 1973, real wages have been steadily declining, a phenomenon without historical precedent.

The Reagan administration implemented Jimmy Carter’s plans to increase military spending while eliminating social programs, thus shifting resources from the poor to the rich and converting the state, even more than before, into a welfare state for the wealthy. The statist reactionaries of the Reagan administration rapidly increased state intervention in the economy through the Pentagon system while introducing more protectionist measures than all other post-war Presidents combined, and initiating Pentagon-based consortia to permit “free enterprise” to maintain its competitive edge. Parallel policies, also vigorously pursued, attacked individual liberties and enhanced state power in other ways, along with a renewed resort to violence and subversion in the international arena.

The costs, however, were great. The world’s leading creditor quickly was converted into the world’s leading debtor. Reaganite economic mismanagement created huge budget and trade deficits, a flurry of financial manipulation and a large increase in consumption by the rich, but little productive investment. With the general cooperation of the Democratic opposition, the Reagan administration threw a party for the wealthy, to be financed by the poor and by future generations. By the mid-1980s, it was plain to U.S. elites that these policies could not be sustained. Washington was compelled to reduce its hysterical rhetoric, wild spending and international aggressiveness, and even to respond in a limited way to Soviet initiatives for detente.

State-run command economies and market systems that serve concentrated power lead to structures of hierarchy and domination that are intolerable to libertarians. They are also increasingly incapable of confronting human problems, even problems of survival that cannot be put aside in an era of proliferating weapons of mass destruction and severe degradation of the environment.

With Bolshevism disintegrating, capitalism long abandoned and state-capitalist democracy in decline, there are prospects for the revival of the libertarian ideals that had languished, including democratic control of the workplace and of investment decisions. If these ideals are not revived, we may quite literally be approaching “the end of history” If they can be successfully revitalized, the twenty-first century may witness the beginnings of a human history guided by a serious concern for freedom and justice.

January-February 1990, ATC 24

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *