Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Does Socialism Affect Freedom?

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Does socialism require the surrender of individual freedom? The realm of freedom begins when the realm of necessity is left behind. Is freedom of the market real freedom?  And what about justice?  Prof. Harvey tries to answer these questions and more.


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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I want to talk about the topic of freedom. This was raised last week when I was giving some talks in Peru, of all places, and the students there were very interested in this issue of, ‘Does socialism require surrender of individual freedom?’ I think the right wing has managed, in many respects, particularly in the United States but also in other parts of the world, of somehow or another colonizing the notion of freedom, and using the concept of freedom as a weapon in class struggle, to say that socialists are actually about ‘un-freedom;’ that the slavery of a socialist society or a communist society is something to be avoided and evaded at all costs. I think that there is an approach to this, with which we should take great care, so that we do not give up the idea of individual freedom as being part of what an emancipatory project of a socialist world is. In fact, we may want to put it center instead of peripheral, and put it center because I think there is a way in which we can talk about individual liberty and freedom as being part of an emancipatory project, which rests upon a collective attempt to build the kind of society where we—all of us—have life chances and life possibilities, which are open to us all.

Now, Marx had a few interesting things to say on this: One of them was that, ‘The realm of freedom begins when the realm of necessity is left behind;’ that freedom means nothing if you don’t have enough to eat, if you are denied access to adequate healthcare and education, and the role of socialism is to provide those basic necessities, to fulfill those basic human needs so that then people are free to do exactly what they want. So you could, in fact, argue that the endpoint of a socialist transition, and even the endpoint of the construction of a communist society, is a world in which individual capacities and powers are liberated entirely from wants, needs, and the constraints, and that therefore, rather than saying that the right wing has a monopoly over the notion of individual freedom, that we should reclaim that idea for socialism itself.

Marx also pointed out that the idea of freedom is always a double-edged sword, and he had an interesting way of looking at this, particularly when he looked at the position of the laborer. He said that labor in a capitalist society is ‘free’ in the double sense: They are free in the sense that they can offer their labor power to whomever they want; they can offer it on whatever conditions they wish to put forward, but at the same time they are un-free because they have been freed from any control over the means of production. In other words, they have to surrender their labor power in order to live. So you have a double-edged freedom, and Marx is very—I think—direct about looking at that. In the chapter on ‘the working day’ he puts it this way, ‘The capitalist is free to say to the laborer, ‘I want to employ you at the lowest wage possible for the largest number of hours possible. That is what I would demand of you,’ and the capitalist is free to do that in a market society, because as we know, a market society is about bidding about this and bidding about that. On the other hand, Marx kind of says that the worker is free to say, ‘You don’t have a right to make me work 12 hours a day. You don’t have a right to do these things.’ Marx kind of comments that given the nature of a market society, both the capitalist and the worker are right in terms of what they are demanding, but of course they demand something radically different. So, says Marx, they are both equally right by the law of exchanges, but between equal rights force decides; that is, struggle between capital and labor—not necessarily violence—but it could be violent at a certain point. The struggle between capital and labor is really what is involved in the determination of how long the worker must work for a day, what the wage will be, and what the conditions of labor will be like.

This idea of freedom as a double-edged sword is something that is, I think, very, very important to look at. One of the best analysts of this was an economic historian called Karl Polanyi, who wrote a book called The Great Transformation. Now, Polanyi was not a Marxist, and I think he read some Marx, but he didn’t subscribe, as it were, to the Marxist view of things, but Polanyi himself was very open himself about this question of rights and question of freedom. This is what he has to say in The Great Transformation: He says, ‘There are good forms of freedom and bad forms of freedom.’ Among the bad forms of freedom that he listed were: ‘The freedom to exploit one’s fellows or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensal service to the community; the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit or the freedom to profit from public calamities or naturally induced calamities, some of which are secretly engineered for private advantage.’

Polanyi continues, ‘The market economy under which these freedoms thrived also produced freedoms which we prize highly: The freedom of conscience, the freedom of speech, the freedom of meeting, the freedom of association, and the freedom to choose one’s own job. While we may cherish these freedoms for their own sake [and I think many of us still do, and that would include me] they were to a large extent byproducts of the same economy that was also responsible for the evil freedoms.’ Polanyi’s answer to this duality makes some very strange reading, given the current hegemony of neoliberal thinking and the way in which freedom is presented to us by political power. He writes about it this way, ‘The passing of the market economy [that is, getting beyond the market economy] can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom.’ Now, that’s a pretty shocking statement, to kind of say that the real freedom begins after we leave the market economy behind.

So, he continues, ‘Juridical and actual freedom can be made (more) wider and more general than ever before. Regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few but for all. Freedom, not as an impertinence of privilege tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere, into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus, will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all; such a society can afford to be both just and free.’

Now, that idea of a society based upon justice and freedom, justice and liberty, seems to me to have been the political agenda of much of, say, the student movement of the 60s and the ’68 generation, that there was a demand for both justice and freedom. Freedom from coercion of the State, freedom from coercion imposed by corporate capital, but also justice. It was interesting that in the 1970s, in effect, politics was about working through that demand, and in effect saying, ‘We give you the freedom,’ said the capitalist class, ‘but you forget the justice.’ I think giving the freedom was also circumscribed, in the sense that the freedom was going to be given by freedom of the market, and that therefore the free market was the answer to the question of freedom, and just forget the justice because justice will be a product of demand and supply in the market.

This was something that Polanyi also recognized. Unfortunately, he said that the passage to the future he outlined here is blocked by a moral obstacle, and the moral obstacle was something which he called liberal utopianism. I think we still face that liberal utopianism. It’s an ideology which is pervasive in the media, and it’s an ideology that is pervasive in politics. The liberal utopianism of, say, the Democratic Party, is one of the things that stands in the way of the achievement of real freedom. So, what Polanyi did was to say that that kind of approach to freedom is something that is going to get in the way, and I quote him, ‘Planning and control, are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be the essentials of freedom.’ This, of course, was what the main ideologists of the Neoliberalism put forward. This is what Milton Friedman was about. This is what (Friedrich) Hayek insisted, that the freedom of the individual from State domination can only be assured, he said, ‘in a society which is founded on private property rights and individual liberty … Planning and control, then, are attacked as a denial of freedom. Private ownership is declared to be the essential freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as un-freedom. The justice, liberty, and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery’.

Now, to me this is one of the key issues of our time. Are we going to go beyond the freedoms, which are limited freedoms of the market, and market determinations and the laws of supply and demand, and what Marx called the laws of motion of capital; are we going to be able to go beyond that or are we going to accept, as Margaret Thatcher put it, that ‘there is no alternative.’ Of course, if is there is no alternative there is no freedom. This is the paradox of our current situation, that in the name of freedom we’ve actually adopted a liberal utopian ideology, which is a barrier to the achievement of real freedom.

I do not think it is a world of freedom, when somebody who wants to get an education has to pay an immense amount of money for it, and has student debt stretching way, way into their future. What we’re talking about is debt peonage. What we’re talking about is debt slavery, and this is something which needs to be avoided and needs to be circumscribed. We should have free education; there should be no change for that. The same should be true of healthcare, and the same should be true of a basic provision of housing.

It’s interesting that we went from a world in the 1960s where there was social provision of housing. In Britain, for example, a large proportion of the housing provision in the 1960s came in the public sector; it was social housing. When I was growing up, that social housing was the basic provision of a necessity at a reasonably low cost. Then what happened, was Margaret Thatcher came along and privatized it all, and said basically, you will be much freer if you own your property and you can actually become part of a property owning democracy. So, instead of 60 percent of the housing being in the public sector, we suddenly go to a situation where only about 20—or maybe even a lesser percentage of the housing is in the public sector. Of course, one of the things that then happens is that housing becomes a commodity, and commodity then becomes a part of speculative activity. To the degree that it becomes a vehicle of speculation, so the price of the property goes up. So, you get a rising cost of housing with no actual increase in direct provision. It takes an issue like housing, and you say, ‘I’ve actually lived, in my lifetime, through the following sequence: When I was a kid growing up, I was brought up in what might be called a respectable working-class community where there was home ownership. Now, most of the people in the working class did not have home ownership, but there was a segment of the working class that had home ownership, and I happened to be raised in a community of that kind. The house was viewed as a use value; that is, it was a place where we lived and we did things, and you know, family life and all of those kinds of things. We never really discussed its exchange value. In fact, I saw some data recently that said that housing values—particularly housing values for sort of working-class housing—really showed absolutely no shift at all over 100 years or more, up until, say, the 1960s.

Then, in the 1960s something else began to happen, and housing started to be viewed as an exchange value rather than a use value. People started to think of, ‘How valuable is this?’ ‘Can we improve its value; if so, how do we improve its value?’ So, suddenly exchange value considerations came in, and then along came Margaret Thatcher and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to privatize all of the social housing, so everybody can start to benefit from rising exchange values.’ So, the question of housing as an exchange value started to become significant. Now, one of the consequences of this is that those people in the lowest elements of the population, from the standpoint of income, found it harder and harder and harder to find a place to live. So, that instead of living in very central locations where they had easy access to job and employment opportunities, they were more and more expelled from the centers of cities and from the best locations, and increasing had to commute longer and longer distances to their work and to their jobs.

By the time you get to the 1990s, however, the house has become an instrument of speculative gain; that people start to speculate on housing values, and we get speculative activity in the housing markets. The result is that many of the people in the lowest levels of the population cannot find a place to live. We get the production of homelessness. When I was young there were some homeless people around, but very, very few. Now, if you’re in London or you’re in large cities of that kind, you find more and more homeless people. In New York City right now, the data suggest that we have 60 thousand homeless people. We have a large proportion of young kids who are actually homeless; not in the sense that you see them on the streets, but they shift from one relative to another or one friend to another, and sleep on the couch and this kind of thing. This is no way to actually create solidarious communities. So, what do we see in cities? We actually see a great deal of building going on, but its speculative building. We’re actually building cities for people to speculate in, and not cities for people to live in. If we create cities for investment purposes rather than for living purposes, we get the kind of situation we see in New York City, where there is a crisis of affordable housing. The mass of the population is badly served in terms of its use values of housing; it has very little access to adequate use values. At the same time, we are building large, huge, sort of high-value apartments for the ultra-rich.

The former Mayor of New York City had a kind of ambition that every billionaire in the world would come and actually invest, live, and have a big apartment on Park Avenue or somewhere like that. Of course, that indeed is what happened, so we find Arab sheiks and billionaires from India or China or Russia, but they don’t live; they just come maybe once or twice a year, and that’s it. This is no foundation for a decent living arrangement. So, on the one side we are building cities and building housing in a way which provides tremendous freedom for the upper classes, at the same time as it actually produces un-freedom for the rest of the population. This is what I think was meant when Marx did make that kind of famous comment that the realm of necessity actually has to be overcome in order for the realm of freedom to be achieved. What we have right now in New York City is freedom of investment, freedom for the upper classes to choose where it is that they will live, and the mass of the population is then left with almost no choice, whatsoever. This is, if you like, the way in which market freedoms limit the possibilities. From that standpoint, I think that the socialist perspective is to do as Polanyi suggests; that is, we collectivize the question of access to freedom and access to housing. We turn it away from being something which is surely and simply in the market, to being something in the public domain.

This, I think, is one of the basic ideas of socialism in the contemporary system—to put things in the public domain. On this I get some encouragement from the fact that the Labor Party in Britain, which is one of the few traditional parties, which seems to have some vigorous democratic urgency about what it is up to, starts to propose that many areas in public life should be taken back from the market and brought back into the public domain. For example, transportation. If you say to anybody in Britain that private provision of transportation on the railways is producing a more efficient transport system, everybody in Britain will laugh at you. They know perfectly well what the consequences of privatization have been about; it’s been a disaster, it’s been a mess, it’s been uncoordinated, and the same thing applies to public transportation in cities. We also see the privatization of water supply, which is supposed to be good, but on the other hand, what we find is of course that water is charged for as a basic necessity. It should not be rendered through the market, but now you have to pay your water rate, and the water provision has not been good. So, the Labor Party is kind of saying, look—there are all of these areas which are basic necessities for the population, and they should not be provided through the market. So, we’re going to stop this business of student loans. We’re going to stop this access to education through privatization. We’re actually going to move much more to this world of something being provided; basic necessities through the public domain. That there is an urge, I think, to try to sort of say, ‘Let’s take these basic necessities and take them out of the market; let’s provide them in a different way. We can do that with education. We can do that with healthcare. We can do that with housing, and we should do it with basic food supplies. In fact, there have been experiments in some Latin-American countries, with providing basic food supplies to lower populations at a cut price. I don’t see any reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t have a basic food supply configuration for most people in the world today.

Now, this then is the idea that the realm of freedom is only possible when we have actually provided all of the basic necessities, which we will need to lead a decent, adequate life. That, it seems to me, is the idea of freedom, which a socialist society would pursue, which would say that there is a collective way in which to do this.

Finally, one point: It is often said that in order to do this we have to surrender our individuality and we have to give up something. Well, to some degree, yes, that might be true; but, there is a greater freedom to be achieved. I think that I read Marx as saying he was actually interested in maximizing the realm of individual freedom, but that individual freedom can only be maximized when the realm of necessity is taken care of. The task of a socialist society is not to regulate everything that goes on in society—not at all. The task of a socialist society is to make sure that all of the basic necessities are taken care of, freely provided, so that people can then do exactly what they want. Here I think it is not only that they receive the resources to do it, but that they also have the time to do it. Freedom, free time—real free time—is something which is absolutely crucial to the idea of a socialist society. I think if you ask everybody right now, ‘How much free time do you have?” you find that actually everybody kind of says, ‘I have almost no free time, whatsoever. It’s all taken up with this, that, and everything else.’ But then, real freedom is a world in which we have free time to do whatever we want. I think that that emancipatory message about freedom is crucial to the idea of a socialist society, and it’s something that we can all work towards.

Thank you for joining me today. You’ve been listening to David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special ‘thank you’ to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Ann Ford
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