Whose Freedom?

The subtitle of this blog is “Let all things be held in common.” i.e. “let communism”. When asked why I support communism my reply is always “human freedom”. I often get perplexed looks. The normal dialectic for public consumption is between freedom and equality. On one hand communism is said to promote equality whereas some kind of hypothetical American “libertarian” utopia is said to promote freedom. Political decision making is then presented as a sort of balancing act between these two extremes.

It’s easy to see how this dialectic became popular; I don’t want to dismiss it as laughable. The so called “communist” regimes of the Eastern Bloc did indeed have more “equality” and less “freedom” than capitalist America. The kind of communism I envisage has nothing to do with state power or ownership (or the state at all) but that’s a broader topic. Here I just want to look critically at the claim that capitalism represents freedom.

For most of human history after the invention of agriculture some individuals have produced on behalf of others. The transfer of wealth took many forms: tithes, rent, tribute and taxation to name a few. Further, this wealth was extracted primarily through non-economic power. Both the slave-master and the feudal lord received tribute because they directly held military power. Capitalism appears to be a break with that. Certain individuals own capital, they invite others to work with it, producing goods or services in exchange for a wage. Everyone is free to either accept or reject any particular offer of employment. Indeed they are free to reject all offers if they so choose (of course this means they will go without, but this is their choice). Capitalism appears, on the surface, to be a system that does not rely on violence, threat or theft for its continuation.

But of course it does. If we try to deploy capital for our own purposes, without the mediation of the wage relation, or the permission of the owner, if we try to create the necessities or luxuries of our lives without sanction, we will most likely be arrested, and depending on the country, possibly shot at. The world is divided up into little fiefdoms, all we possess is our bodies and brains, and if we want to eat we’d best sell one or the other or both for forty hours a week. Somehow this is meant to represent freedom. On the face of it at least this is bizarre.

 We’re told a story about property rights to try and make this plausible. Different things and bits of land belong to different people. To use them without permission is to violate rights, and thus freedom. For example, to try to sleep in a house that is not your own, even if no one else is living there is to violate the owner’s freedom. The police who arrest you in the owner’s name are simply protecting the rights of the owner.

If you ask “why does that house belong to the owner, such that they can exclude anyone else from using it, even if they are not using it themselves”, you will be told “because they bought it”. If you ask “why did the previous owner have such rights over the house” you will again most likely be told “because they bought it”. You can keep tracing things back, until eventually you’ll generally find an owner who seized it by conquest or force. Similar stories exist for the raw materials that makeup capital (machinery etc). If you go back far enough, ownership always originates in violence, and further, it’s always continued through violence in the present.

Part of this story is the well known tale of the enclosures, the real “tragedy of the commons”. Beginning in 16th century England, communal land that had previously belonged to a number of peasants collectively since time immemorial was enclosed and assigned to individual wealthy landowners. According to many, this created the modern working class by dispossessing us of any means through which to live except the sale of our labour (“communism is the ongoing protest against the enclosures” quipped one wit.) There’s an ironic sense in which that which was being enclosed in these “enclosures” was not just the land, but we, the working class. As our traditional means of subsistence were divvied up, we ourselves were enclosed, or made captive to the wage-labour relation.

More generally the sort of capitalist story we’ve sketched out here about freedom is a common pattern in the history of the concept. Dr Johnson wondered why it was always the drivers of negroes who yelped loudest for liberty. Earlier, ancient Greek and Roman slave-owners wrote extensively on liberty. Later, in present times, big capitalists and their supporters won’t shut up about it either. All too often, freedom is presented as the absence of constraints in exercising power over others. Yet there are other visions of freedom. It is no accident that the oppressed of the world have repeatedly raised the banner of freedom in their revolts and struggles since we first have records on the matter.

 I want to suggest a criterion for evaluating any theory of freedom. A proper theory of freedom would imply that Freedom as a cause matters at least as much to the powerless, as to the powerful. Probably more so, since surely oppression is the inverse of freedom. The capitalist theories of freedom don’t offer anything to those without power, for freedom is presented as the freedom to exercise power. If freedom is to be more than a defence of privilege it must meet this desideratum.

I think the best alternative notion of freedom identifies it with capacity to live in a variety of different ways[1]. Freedom is the power to choose between a vast array of different possible lives and moments within a life. Freedom is, in other words, what John Holloway called power-to, the power to live and be and act in a million possible different ways, contrasted with power-over, or the power to control others. To be free, one must be well-fed, one must be safe, one must be well informed and one must be loved.

Earlier we suggested that we were sceptical of the claim that communism privileges equality and capitalism privileges freedom. Actually we think the inverse is true. Communism presents us with the possibility of living multitudes of different lives, even within one life, it offers the chance to be differently, unconstrained by the wage relation, or the spectacle of normative advertising. It is capitalism which denies freedom to the vast majority of those who live, and further requires their conformity into a society wide system of domination (i.e. their equality).

We’ve argued that Capitalism is a system for denying freedom that claims as its chief virtue the promotion of freedom. It forces us to work for others to survive by giving them absolute but morally arbitrary control over various productive resources. We’ve suggested that an alternative model of freedom links it to capacity to choose different lives for ourselves. But why should any of this matter?

It matters firstly because freedom, as we have argued, is not capitalism’s front foot. It is the terrain on which it is most weak, because it can’t keep its own promises. Just like all forms of class society before it, it relies on violence to extract surplus. Once the argument of freedom is denied to capitalism all that is left to it is the bare argument of efficiency, which essentially amounts to the claim that it is a necessary evil.

But more importantly perhaps, these ‘contradictions’ are widening. A larger and larger portion of our economy is based on information and knowledge production, as well as other forms of immaterial labour. These forms of labour are very poorly incorporated into the existing frameworks of capitalism, precisely because they require a degree of autonomy it finds difficult, if not impossible to provide. Thus this central problem of capitalism, its vexed relation to freedom, is increasingly coming to the fore. To the extent that domination is present, creativity isn’t, and vice-versa[2]. Capitalism must increasingly deny the very creative forces it has summoned, often murdering the goose that laid the golden egg in the process. What better time to deny capitalism’s central lie, that it is the society of the free?


[1] About four different literatures suggest something like this approach independently and the idea has been floating around since time immemorial so I can hardly claim this as original. I’m told that Sen supports something like this view but it’s definitely not my area.

[2] Most obviously there’s a wealth of literature on how the logic of “publish or perish”, an attempt to metricise academic research, is destroying quality. There’s also a wealth of research on how the quantification of teaching is killing it, on how the rationalisation of therapy and social work is harmful, and perhaps most interestingly a literature on how large technology firms are increasingly reduced to buying up patents.

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About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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One Response to Whose Freedom?

  1. Pingback: Philosopher’s carnival #155 | Blogging the End

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