That Dangerous Radical Aristotle

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from The Common Good, 1998

January 1997, you gave a talk at a conference in Washington DC. It was sponsored by several organizations, including the Progressive Caucus, a group of about fifty liberal and radical members of Congress. What did you think of the conference?

I was pretty encouraged by what I saw of it. There was a good, lively atmosphere, a lot of vitality. A dominant feeling there — with which I agree — was that a considerable majority of Americans are more or less in favor of New Deal-style liberalism. That’s remarkable, since most Americans never hear anybody advocating that position.

Supposedly, the market has proved that the L-word is bad — that’s what’s drummed into everybody’s head all the time. Yet many people in the Progressive Caucus who publicly stood for New Deal positions — like Sen. Paul Wellstone [D-Minn.], Rep. Jim McGovern [D-Mass.] and others — won their elections. The Progressive Caucus actually grew after the 1996 election.

Now I don’t think New Deal liberalism is the end of the road…by any means. But its achievements, which are the result of a lot of popular struggle, are worth defending and expanding.

Your talk was entitled The Common Good.

That title was given to me, and since I’m a nice, obedient type, thatÕs what I talked about. I started from the beginning, with Aristotle’s Politics, which is the foundation of most subsequent political theory.

Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy should be fully participatory (with some notable exceptions, like women and slaves) and that it should aim for the common good. In order to achieve that, it has to ensure relative equality, "moderate and sufficient property" and "lasting prosperity" for everyone.

In other words, Aristotle felt that if you have extremes of poor and rich, you can’t talk seriously about democracy. Any true democracy has to be what we call today a welfare state — actually, an extreme form of one, far beyond anything envisioned in this century.

(When I pointed this out at a press conference in Majorca, the headlines in the Spanish papers read something like, If Aristotle were alive today, he’d be denounced as a dangerous radical. That’s probably true.)

The idea that great wealth and democracy can’t exist side by side runs right up through the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, including major figures like de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Jefferson and others. It was more or less assumed.

Aristotle also made the point that if you have, in a perfect democracy, a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor people, the poor will use their democratic rights to take property away from the rich. Aristotle regarded that as unjust, and proposed two possible solutions: reducing poverty (which is what he recommended) or reducing democracy.

James Madison, who was no fool, noted the same problem, but unlike Aristotle, he aimed to reduce democracy rather than poverty. He believed that the primary goal of government is "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." As his colleague John Jay was fond of putting it, "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

Madison feared that a growing part of the population, suffering from the serious inequities of the society, would "secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings." If they had democratic power, there’d be a danger they’d do something more than sigh. He discussed this quite explicitly at the Constitutional Convention, expressing his concern that the poor majority would use its power to bring about what we would now call land reform.

So he designed a system that made sure democracy couldn’t function. He placed power in the hands of the "more capable set of men," those who hold "the wealth of the nation." Other citizens were to be marginalized and factionalized in various ways, which have taken a variety of forms over the years: fractured political constituencies, barriers against unified working-class action and cooperation, exploitation of ethnic and racial conflicts, etc.

(To be fair, Madison was precapitalist and his "more capable set of men" were supposed to be "enlightened statesmen" and "benevolent philosophers," not investors and corporate executives trying to maximize their own wealth regardless of the effect that has on other people. When Alexander Hamilton and his followers began to turn the US into a capitalist state, Madison was pretty appalled. In my opinion, he’d be an anticapitalist if he were alive today — as would Jefferson and Adam Smith.)

ItÕs extremely unlikely that what are now called "inevitable results of the market" would ever be tolerated in a truly democratic society. You can take Aristotle’s path and make sure that almost everyone has "moderate and sufficient property" — in other words, is what he called "middle-class." Or you can take Madison’s path and limit the functioning of democracy.

Throughout our history, political power has been, by and large, in the hands of those who own the country. There have been some limited variations on that theme, like the New Deal. FDR had to respond to the fact that the public was not going to tolerate the existing situation. He left power in the hands of the rich, but bound them to a kind of social contract. That was nothing new, and it will happen again.