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How does capitalism affect liberty?

Posted in the database on Tuesday, July 05th, 2005 @ 23:09:30 MST (3939 views)
by Anonymous      

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Private property is in many ways like a private form of state. The owner determines what goes on within the area he or she "owns," and therefore exercises a monopoly of power over it. When power is exercised over one's self, it is a source of freedom, but under capitalism it is a source of coercive authority.

As Bob Black points out in The Abolition of Work, "The liberals and conservatives and Libertarians who lament totalitarianism are phoneys and hypocrites. . .You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office or factory as you do in a prison or a monastery. . .A worker is a part-time slave. The boss says when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime. He tells you how much work to do and how fast. He is free to carry his control to humiliating extremes, regulating, if he feels like it, the clothes you wear or how often you go to the bathroom. With a few exceptions he can fire you for any reason, or no reason. He has you spied on by snitches and supervisors, he amasses a dossier on every employee. Talking back is called 'insubordination,' just as if a worker is a naughty child, and it not only gets you fired, it disqualifies you for unemployment compensation. . .The demeaning system of domination I've described rules over half the waking hours of a majority of women and the vast majority of men for decades, for most of their lifespans. For certain purposes it's not too misleading to call our system democracy or capitalism or -- better still -- industrialism, but its real names are factory fascism and office oligarchy. Anybody who says these people are 'free' is lying or stupid."

Unlike a company, the democratic state can be influenced by its citizens, who are able to act in ways that limit (to some extent) the power of the ruling elite to be "left alone" to enjoy their power. As a result, the wealthy hate the democratic aspects of the state, and its ordinary citizens, as potential threats to their power. This "problem" was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in early 19th-century America:

"It is easy to perceive that the wealthy members of the community entertain a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country. The populace is at once the object of their scorn and their fears."

These fears have not changed, nor has the contempt for democratic ideas. To quote one US Corporate Executive, "one man, one vote will result in the eventual failure of democracy as we know it." [L. Silk and D. Vogel, Ethics and Profits: The Crisis of Confidence in American Business, pp. 189f]

This contempt for democracy does not mean that capitalists are anti-state. Far from it. As previously noted, capitalists depend on the state. This is because "[classical] Liberalism, is in theory a kind of anarchy without socialism, and therefore is simply a lie, for freedom is not possible without equality. . .The criticism liberals direct at government consists only of wanting to deprive it some of its functions and to call upon the capitalists to fight it out amongst themselves, but it cannot attack the repressive functions which are of its essence: for without the gendarme the property owner could not exist." [Errico Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 46].

Capitalists call upon and support the state when it acts in their interests and when it supports their authority and power. The "conflict" between state and capital is like two gangsters fighting over the proceeds of a robbery: they will squabble over the loot and who has more power in the gang, but they need each other to defend their "property" against those from whom they stole it.

The statist nature of private property can be seen in "Libertarian" (i.e. minarchist, or "classical" liberal) works representing the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism: "[I]f one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established" [Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270]

This is voluntary feudalism, nothing more. Of course, it can be claimed that "market forces" will result in the most liberal owners being the most successful, but a nice master is still a master. To paraphrase Tolstoy, "the liberal capitalist is like a kind donkey owner. He will do everything for the donkey -- care for it, feed it, wash it. Everything except get off its back!" And as Bob Black notes, "Some people giving orders and others obeying them: this is the essence of servitude. . . . [F]reedom means more than the right to change masters." [The Libertarian as Conservative]. That supporters of capitalism often claim that this "right" to change masters is the essence of "freedom" is a telling indictment of the capitalist notion of "liberty."

Is capitalism based on freedom?

For anarchists, freedom means both "freedom from" and "freedom to." "Freedom from" signifies not being subject to domination, exploitation, coercive authority, repression, or other forms of degradation and humiliation. "Freedom to" means being able to develop and express one's abilities, talents, and potentials to the fullest possible extent compatible with the maximum freedom of others. Both kinds of freedom imply the need for self-management, responsibility, and independence, which basically means that people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. And since individuals do not exist in a social vacuum, it also means that freedom must take on a collective aspect, with the associations that individuals form with each other (e.g. communities, work groups, social groups) being run in a manner which allows the individual to participate in the decisions that the group makes. Thus freedom for anarchists requires participatory democracy, which means face-to-face discussion and voting on issues by the people affected by them.

Are these conditions of freedom met in the capitalist system? Obviously not. Despite all their rhetoric about "democracy," most of the "advanced" capitalist states remain only superficially democratic -- and this because the majority of their citizens are employees who spend about half their waking hours under the thumb of capitalist dictators (bosses) who allow them no voice in the crucial economic decisions that affect their lives most profoundly and require them to work under conditions inimical to independent thinking. If the most basic freedom, namely freedom to think for oneself, is denied, then freedom itself is denied.

The capitalist workplace is profoundly undemocratic. Indeed, as Noam Chomsky points out, the oppressive authority relations in the typical corporate hierarchy would be called fascist or totalitarian if we were referring to a political system. In his words :

"There's nothing individualistic about corporations. These are big conglomerate institutions, essentially totalitarian in character, but hardly individualistic. There are few institutions in human society that have such strict hierarchy and top-down control as a business organisation. Nothing there about 'don't tread on me`. You're being tread on all the time." [Keeping the Rabble in Line, p. 280]

Far from being "based on freedom," then, capitalism actually destroys freedom. In this regard, Robert E. Wood, the chief executive officer of Sears, spoke plainly when he said "[w]e stress the advantages of the free enterprise system, we complain about the totalitarian state, but... we have created more or less of a totalitarian system in industry, particularly in large industry." [quoted by Allan Engler, Apostles of Greed, p. 68]

Or, as Chomsky puts it, supporters of capitalism do not understand "the fundamental doctrine, that you should be free from domination and control, including the control of the manager and the owner" [Feb. 14th, 1992 appearance on Pozner/Donahue].

Under corporate authoritarianism, the psychological traits deemed most desirable for average citizens to possess are efficiency, conformity, emotional detachment, insensitivity, and unquestioning obedience to authority -- traits that allow people to survive and even prosper as employees in the company hierarchy. And of course, for "non-average" citizens, i.e., bosses, managers, administrators, etc., authoritarian traits are needed, the most important being the ability and willingness to dominate others.

But all such master/slave traits are inimical to the functioning of real (i.e. participatory/libertarian) democracy, which requires that citizens have qualities like flexibility, creativity, sensitivity, understanding, emotional honesty, directness, warmth, realism, and the ability to mediate, communicate, negotiate, integrate and co-operate. Therefore, capitalism is not only undemocratic, it is anti-democratic, because it promotes the development of traits that make real democracy (and so a libertarian society) impossible.

Many capitalist apologists have attempted to show that capitalist authority structures are "voluntary" and are, therefore, somehow not a denial of individual and social freedom. Milton Friedman (a leading free market capitalist economist) has attempted to do just this. Like most apologists for capitalism he ignores the authoritarian relations explicit within wage labour (within the workplace, "co-ordination" is based upon top-down command, not horizontal co-operation). Instead he concentrates on the decision of a worker to sell their labour to a specific boss and so ignores the lack of freedom within such contracts. He argues that "individuals are effectively free to enter or not enter into any particular exchange, so every transaction is strictly voluntary. . . The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work." [Capitalism and Freedom, pp. 14-15]

Friedman, to prove the free nature of capitalism, compares capitalism with a simple exchange economy based upon independent producers. He states that in such a simple economy each household "has the alternative of producing directly for itself, [and so] it need not enter into any exchange unless it benefits from it. Hence no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit from it. Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion." [Op. Cit., p. 13] Under capitalism (or the "complex" economy) Friedman states that "individuals are effectively free to enter or not to enter into any particular exchange, so that every transaction is strictly voluntary." [Op. Cit., p. 14]

A moments thought, however, shows that capitalism is not based on "strictly voluntary" transactions as Friedman claims. This is because the proviso that is required to make every transaction "strictly voluntary" is not freedom not to enter any particular exchange, but freedom not to enter into any exchange at all. (A very common scenario in the world today is a "worker" looking for a job. Most "workers" are born owning nothing and inheriting next to nothing. This worked finds a job. The job pays a rather low wage and barely covers the worker's minimum basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. The worker complains about the low wage or working condition and is given a response by the boss of something like this, "go find another job...I am not forcing you to work here". The worker looks around and sees that there are not a lot of other jobs to choose from. The individual worker has no choice. The simple fact is that working, even in this rather poor paying job, allows the worker to pay for their basic necessities, like food, clothing, and shelter. The choice is to work in the conditions dictated by the owner or die homeless, naked, and starving. Therefore the agreement that the worker makes with the owner is not "free", because the worker is faced with the dilemma of not working, with the results being starving to death, or working under coercive conditions and having a very basic minimal survival. This simple dilemma and the nature of the coercive system is implicit in society today. It is understood to be "freedom". If the worker were free to not enter into transactions consisting of satisfying basic survival requirements, like food, clothing, and shelter, then the coercion would not exist and any agreement with the boss would be a free decision.)

This, and only this, was the proviso that proved the simple model Friedman presents (the one based upon artisan production) to be voluntary and non-coercive; and nothing less than this would prove the complex model (i.e. capitalism) is voluntary and non-coercive. But Friedman is clearly claiming above that freedom not to enter into any particular exchange is enough and so, only by changing his own requirements, can he claim that capitalism is based upon freedom.

It is easy to see what Friedman has done, but it is less easy to excuse it (particularly as it is so commonplace in capitalist apologetics). He moved from the simple economy of exchange between independent producers to the capitalist economy without mentioning the most important thing the distinguishes them - namely the separation of labour from the means of production. In the society of independent producers, the worker had the choice of working for themselves - under capitalism this is not the case. Capitalism is based upon the existence of a labour force without its own sufficient capital, and therefore without a choice as to whether to put its labour in the market or not. Milton Friedman would agree that where there is no choice there is coercion. His attempted demonstration that capitalism co-ordinates without coercion therefore fails.

Capitalist apologists are able to convince some people that capitalism is "based on freedom" only because the system has certain superficial appearances of freedom.

On closer analysis these appearances turn out to be deceptions. For example, it is claimed that the employees of capitalist firms have freedom because they can always quit. But, as noted earlier, "Some people giving orders and others obeying them: this is the essence of servitude. Of course, as [right-Libertarians] smugly [observe], 'one can at least change jobs,' but you can't avoid having a job -- just as under statism one can at least change nationalities but you can't avoid subjection to one nation-state or another. But freedom means more than the right to change masters" [Bob Black, The Libertarian as Conservative]. Under capitalism, workers have only the Hobson's choice of being governed/exploited or living on the street.

Anarchists point out that for choice to be real, free agreements and associations must be based on the social equality of those who enter into them, and both sides must receive roughly equivalent benefit. But social relations between capitalists and employees can never be equal, because private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive authority and subordination, as was recognised even by Adam Smith (see below).

The picture painted by Walter Reuther of working life in America before the Wagner act is a commentary on class inequality : "Injustice was as common as streetcars. When men walked into their jobs, they left their dignity, their citizenship and their humanity outside. They were required to report for duty whether there was work or not. While they waited on the convenience of supervisors and foremen they were unpaid. They could be fired without a pretext. They were subjected to arbitrary, senseless rules. . . .Men were tortured by regulations that made difficult even going to the toilet. Despite grandiloquent statements from the presidents of huge corporations that their door was open to any worker with a complaint, there was no one and no agency to which a worker could appeal if he were wronged. The very idea that a worker could be wronged seemed absurd to the employer." Much of this indignity remains, and with the globalisation of capital, the bargaining position of workers is further deteriorating, so that the gains of a century of class struggle are in danger of being lost.

A quick look at the enormous disparity of power and wealth between the capitalist class and the working class shows that the benefits of the "agreements" entered into between the two sides are far from equal. Walter Block, a leading Fraser Institute ideologue, makes clear the differences in power and benefits when discussing sexual harassment in the workplace:

"Consider the sexual harassment which continually occurs between a secretary and a boss. . .while objectionable to many women, [it] is not a coercive action. It is rather part of a package deal in which the secretary agrees to all aspects of the job when she agrees to accept the job, and especially when she agrees to keep the job. The office is, after all, private property. The secretary does not have to remain if the 'coercion' is objectionable." [quoted by Engler, Op. Cit., p. 101]

The primary goal of the Fraser Institute is to convince people that all other rights must be subordinated to the right to enjoy wealth. In this case, Block makes clear that under private property, only bosses have "freedom to," and most also desire to ensure they have "freedom from" interference with this right.

So, when capitalists gush about the "liberty" available under capitalism, what they are really thinking of is their state-protected freedom to exploit and oppress workers through the ownership of property, a freedom that allows them to continue amassing huge disparities of wealth, which in turn insures their continued power and privileges. That the capitalist class in liberal-democratic states gives workers the right to change masters (though this is not true under state capitalism) is far from showing that capitalism is based on freedom, For as Peter Kropotkin rightly points out, "freedoms are not given, they are taken" [Peter Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 43]. In capitalism, you are "free" to do anything you are permitted to do by your masters, which amounts to "freedom" with a collar and leash.

Is capitalism based on self-ownership?

Murray Rothbard, a leading "libertarian" capitalist, claims that capitalism is based on the "basic axiom" of "the right to self-ownership." This "axiom" is defined as "the absolute right of each man [sic]. . .to control [his or her] body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man [sic] the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered by coercive molestation." [For a New Liberty, pp. 26-27]

So far, so good. However, we reach a problem once we consider private property. As Ayn Rand, another ideologue for "free market" capitalism argued, "there can be no such thing as the right to unrestricted freedom of speech (or of action) on someone else's property" [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 258]. Or, as is commonly said by capitalist owners, "I don't pay you to think."

Similarly, capitalists don't pay their employees to perform the other "vital activities" listed by Rothbard (learning, valuing, choosing ends and means) -- unless, of course, the firm requires that workers undertake such activities in the interests of company profits. Otherwise, workers can rest assured that any efforts to engage in such "vital activities" on company time will be "hampered" by "coercive molestation." Therefore wage labour (the basis of capitalism) in practice denies the rights associated with "self-ownership," thus alienating the individual from his or her basic rights. Or as Michael Bakunin expresses it, "the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time" under capitalism.

In a society of relative equals, "private property" would not be a source of power. For example, you would still be able to fling a drunk out of your home. But in a system based on wage labour (i.e. capitalism), private property is a different thing altogether, becoming a source of institutionalised power and coercive authority through hierarchy. As Noam Chomsky writes, capitalism is based on "a particular form of authoritarian control. Namely, the kind that comes through private ownership and control, which is an extremely rigid system of domination." When "property" is purely what you, as an individual, use (i.e. possession) it is not a source of power. In capitalism, however, "property" rights no longer coincide with use rights, and so they become a denial of freedom and a source of authority and power over the individual. Little wonder that Proudhon labelled property as "theft" and "despotism".

As we've seen in the discussion of hierarchy (section A.2.8 and B.1), all forms of authoritarian control depend on "coercive molestation" -- i.e. the use or threat of sanctions. This is definitely the case in company hierarchies under capitalism. Bob Black describes the authoritarian nature of capitalism as follows: "[T]he place where [adults] pass the most time and submit to the closest control is at work. Thus . . . it's apparent that the source of the greatest direct duress experienced by the ordinary adult is not the state but rather the business that employs him. Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade."

We have already noted the objection that people can leave their jobs, which just amounts to saying "love it or leave it!" and does not address the issue at hand. Needless to say, the vast majority of the population cannot avoid wage labour. Far from being based on the "right to self-ownership," then, capitalism denies it, alienating the individual from such basic rights as free speech, independent thought, and self-management of one's own activity, which individuals have to give up when they are employed. But since these rights, according to Rothbard, are the products of humans as humans, wage labour alienates them from themselves, exactly as it does the individual's labour power and creativity.

To quote Chomsky again, "people can survive, [only] by renting themselves to it [capitalist authority], and basically in no other way. . . ." You do not sell your skills, as these skills are part of you. Instead, what you have to sell is your time, your labour power, and so yourself. Thus under wage labour, rights of "self-ownership" are always placed below property rights, the only "right" being left to you is that of finding another job (although even this right is denied in some countries if the employee owes the company money).

So, contrary to Rothbard's claim, capitalism actually alienates the right to self-ownership because of the authoritarian structure of the workplace, which derives from private property. If we desire real self-ownership, we cannot renounce it for most of our adult lives by becoming wage slaves. Only workers' self-management of production, not capitalism, can make self-ownership a reality.

But no one forces you to work for them!

Of course it is claimed that entering wage labour is a "voluntary" undertaking, from which both sides allegedly benefit. However, due to past initiations of force (e.g. the seizure of land by conquest) plus the tendency for capital to concentrate, a relative handful of people now control vast wealth, depriving all others access to the means of life. As Immanuel Wallerstein points out in The Capitalist World System (vol. 1), capitalism evolved from feudalism, with the first capitalists using inherited family wealth derived from large land holdings to start factories. That "inherited family wealth" can be traced back originally to conquest and forcible seizure. Thus denial of free access to the means of life is based ultimately on the principle of "might makes right." And as Murray Bookchin so rightly points out, "the means of life must be taken for what they literally are: the means without which life is impossible. To deny them to people is more than 'theft'... it is outright homicide." [Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 187]

David Ellerman has also noted that the past use of force has resulted in the majority being limited to those options allowed to them by the powers that be: "It is a veritable mainstay of capitalist thought... that the moral flaws of chattel slavery have not survived in capitalism since the workers, unlike the slaves, are free people making voluntary wage contracts. But it is only that, in the case of capitalism, the denial of natural rights is less complete so that the worker has a residual legal personality as a free 'commodity owner.' He is thus allowed to voluntarily put his own working life to traffic. When a robber denies another person's right to make an

(the original source of this essay, or part of an essay, is unknown. If you know the original source, please e mail me at lookingglassnews@yahoo.com so I can give credit where credit is due)