Capitalism and freedom

March 6, 2019 (1214 words) :: Why do free market ideologues think capitalism is the best way to achieve freedom, and how should the left respond?
Tags: ideology, class-struggle

This post is day 65 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today, I was listening to an old Jacobin Radio episode featuring Rob Larson, author of Capitalism vs Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom. I haven’t read the book yet, but the episode is a good one that responds to a point often made by capitalism’s proponents: that capitalism promotes freedom, while socialism implies giving up freedom to an all-powerful government (see this piece for an example).

How should the left respond to this perspective? After all, freedom is a good thing, and we can’t just let the right own that terrain. Instead, we should find a way to refute capitalism’s unique claim to freedom. Freedom is multifarious; there is no universal “freedom” - it is always constrained to a particular domain, and granted to a particular subject.

The question then becomes: what sorts of freedom does capitalism permit, and for whom? And at what cost?

What freedoms are provided by the market? The most obvious kind is freedom in the realm of consumption: we have greater choice in terms of the commodities we are able to purchase.

Now, there is some merit to this sort of freedom, even if its utility is overblown (for certain types of commodities, I’d argue we have too much choice, to the point where it provides negative social value). Ultimately, though, this sort of freedom isn’t “free”. This freedom comes at a cost: a severe limitation of freedom in the realm of production. We are theoretically free to consume things, but in order to actually activate that freedom, we need money. And for most of us, that cost is a wholesale surrender of our freedom to an employer for 8 hours a day.

Of course, just the recognition that this freedom comes at a cost isn’t necessarily an indictment of capitalism itself. This could still be an acceptable arrangement if the costs and benefits were equally distributed. But they’re not: not everyone gets to own an iPhone, stay at a Ritz-Carlton, or drive a Tesla. Some people have to assemble the iPhones, clean the rooms at the Ritz-Carltons, and put together the Teslas - all under punishing conditions, for low wages that render them mostly unable to experience the benefits of their work from the other side.

These dual inequalities of toil & reward are the real meaning of capitalism. Not everybody toils the same way, and not everybody gets rewarded the same way. The wealth inequality statistics pretty much speak for themselves.

In the podcast, Larson suggests that Milton Friedman et al mostly handwaved away the problem of exploitation, presuming that people who sell their labour do so out of choice. That, to me, seems like a major blind spot in their work, perhaps the result of personal bias (through having ascended to the professional-managerial class). If you enjoy your job (being an economist, in Milton Friedman’s case), then work doesn’t really feel like a major curtailment of freedom.

Of course, it would be dumb to extrapolate one’s personal positive experience of work to billions of other people, most of whom don’t have the luck to be getting paid well to do what they love, and instead have to do what they must merely to afford to live. And yet, that does feel like what’s happened in these pro-free market manifestoes: extolling capitalism’s virtues in terms of freedom of consumption, while completely overlooking the way it curtails freedom in production. Seems like a pretty big omission to me.

If capitalism didn’t entail subordination to the undemocratic, totalitarian states of private enterprise for the masses, then maybe the unequal distribution of rewards (i.e., ability to consume goods, as measured by purchasing power) could be overlooked, to a degree. So there is merit in the neoliberal model’s reasoning. Shame about the flawed assumptions though.

As with any theoretical model, there is always some distance between the model and the world it aims to describe, some complexity that can’t be fully rendered in a pragmatic abstraction. (This is true of left theories as well as right; Marxism can’t explain everything, either.)

Not all omissions are created equal, though. The question of whether a model is good is not a theoretical question that can be answered within the epistemological framework of the model itself - it is a decidedly political question, involving issues of morality. The validity of a model can only be adjudicated by reference to a particular set of moral axioms, not by some universal standard of logic and rationality.

If the “capitalism is good” crowd speak only to the benefits of capitalism for consumers, while neglecting to mention that these benefits are unevenly applied, then they are making an implicit moral claim about the unimportance of those who benefit less. Their comparative lack of freedom doesn’t matter, in this model. What’s more, there’s a flip side to endless consumption (enjoyed mostly by the few), and that’s forced employment of the many, often on terms that severely curtail freedom.

Another way to look at actually existing capitalism is that it brings extreme amounts of freedom to a small number of people, while depriving others of those same freedoms (freedom to have a reasonable share of what society has produced; freedom over their own time). This deprivation is not an accident, or an unfortunate byproduct; it is a precondition of the system. It’s what Marx called “double” freedom for the working class - they’re free to sell their labour power, but they’re also free of having the option to not sell their labour-power. (It’s supposed to be ironic, I guess. Maybe it works better in German.)

For Marx, real freedom means leaving the realm of necessity behind - freedom from want. If freedom is really such an important attribute of an economic system, then surely the goal should be to deliver freedom for everyone, not just a select few.

In that vein, I’ll end with a quote from Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism (a terrific introductory book by Geoff Mann on the problems with capitalism):

The most fundamental problem with capitalism, and the reason it must be rejected, is that it is structured, in its very operation, to make it impossible for millions and even billions to be free in any meaningful sense. The critique of capitalism has little to do with how well it provides for the people of the world relative to what came before (feudalism, slave-plantations, etc.), or with a need to defend the disastrous attempts to resist it (Stalinist “communism”, faux-socialist kleptocracy, etc.). Anticapitalism has to do, rather, with the fact that capitalism is not good enough. It is unacceptable.

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