Freedom in Capitalism?
[Libertate în capitalism?]
University of Bucharest
Abstract: This article seeks to learn more about the freedom of individuals under capitalism. To do so, it will keep referring back to the idea of a capitalist offering a poor person a job and whether this makes them unfree or not. The aim will be to answer the question of “Can we be free under capitalism?”. This will be done by employing different understandings of freedom. Before diving into this, some more information will be given about capitalism. Then, the article will dive into four conceptions of freedom. Firstly, to expand on negative liberty, Hobbes, Berlin, Cohen and Wener will be brought up. The second understanding of freedom will be the ‘real possibilities’ one, focusing on Amartya Sen. Thirdly, the republican theory will look into Rousseau and lastly, Marx will be used to expand on freedom as self-rule.
Keywords: capitalism, freedom, negative liberty, self-rule.
Capitalism is an economic system that has been dominant in the western world for centuries. It is a very relevant topic that can even be linked to multiple of the Sustainable Development Goals that were set by the United Nations, such as those surrounding economic growth; innovation; poverty; and inequalities (United Nations, n.d.). There is no argument that capitalism has several advantages, such as being a major driver of innovation due to competition incentivizing businesses to become increasingly more efficient. It is also a significant factor in increasing wealth and prosperity since innovation and efficiency will create a climate for economic expansion, which will lead to an increase in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Despite these attractive elements, capitalism can also have consequential downsides. For example, wealth inequality. Since competition is a crucial factor, if one company is producing their product much more efficiently and cheaper than other companies, then those latter ones may eventually go bankrupt and lay off their employees. Moreover, while business owners and investors can profit off of transactions, workers simply receive wages. Gradually, disparities will continue to grow and increase inequalities. Many of these workers also do not have much of a choice in choosing to work for low wages or poor conditions as they need to sustain themselves and possibly their families1. The rich get richer and the poor have to work themselves to the bone their whole lives to make ends meet.
Capitalism is an economic system that can be characterized by private ownership of property (as opposed to state-owned). Wages bring about labour and private owners accumulate capital gains. Different definitions of capitalism can be found, but one can describe its center of attention as being profit-maximization, which leads to competition in free markets. This in turn incentivizes efficiency and innovation. Unfortunately, since the means of production are the exclusive property of the bourgeoisie, capitalism leads to increasing inequalities as workers continue to be exploited for profit2.
Among the philosophers that criticized capitalism, Marx is one of the most prominent. He argued that this is a system full of contradictions. In his own words, capitalism “is not a seamless web of oppression, but rather a contradictory life of ‘dual freedom’ ”3. As this article will later show, he argued that capitalism renders workers unfree. The next section will look into various conceptions of freedom, trying to understand if they would all reach the same conclusion – that economic constraints render workers unfree.
Various conceptions of freedom
The idea of differentiating between two senses of freedom is not a new one. Many thinkers, such as Berlin4, argued that freedom has two conceptions – a negative and a positive one. The negative conception of this term can be understood as being concerned with having freedom from external restraints. It refers to the absence of obstacles and barriers – in other words, the absence of interference with possible actions. Positive liberty, on the other hand, refers to having the freedom to act in such a way that you take control of your life and fulfill your purposes5. In a way, positive freedom goes a step further, where the absence of interference is not enough and the presence of abilities must exist6. As a side note, liberty and freedom are used interchangeably in this article.
As will be seen in the following section, Berlin employed a negative conception of freedom. Nevertheless, he did not explicitly reject positive liberty – rather, he explained that it is prone to dangerous uses. For example, authoritarian leaders may use such a way of thinking in order to justify their methods. Since being free would be understood as living the right way(s), then it could happen that someone else knows how to do so better than you – even if you cannot recognize this. Therefore, this other person could force you to be ‘free’ by arguing that it is the better path. The implication of employing a positive conception of liberty is that one could justify deeply unfree social relations and institutions such as the Soviet Union7.
Hobbes and Berlin were some of the best known thinkers among those defending the negative conception of liberty. Hobbes’ view was quite strict in the way that he argued for an absence of interference which physically stops an attempted action. For example, if a robber said, “your money or your life”, this coercive threat would not make you unfree as you would still have the (less desirable) option of handing over your money. Actually killing you, however, would make you unfree as you would no longer be able to physically carry out actions. This negative conception, therefore, makes no references to the agent’s beliefs, desires or values. Such accounts do have counterintuitive implications because laws are put in place not to physically prevent actions, but to deter them through the threat of punishment. Are these laws then not restricting people’s negative freedom8?
Keeping this in mind, Berlin is a thinker that has a more widely encompassing view of negative freedom. He argues that this is not only limited to physical restraints, but includes your ability to carry out an action being hindered by another person (or group). Hence, coercion – “the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act” would make you unfree9.
Relating this back to capitalism, defenders of negative liberty would argue that a starving person accepting a job by a capitalist would not make them unfree. Hobbes would claim that this is not an interference with one’s freedom as they still have the choice of refusing the job. They are not physically being forced to accept it. Berlin would also argue that accepting even precarious employment is still a choice as concepts such as inequality and private domination do not directly interfere with one’s individual choices10.
To bring in a countering perspective to this last sentence, Cohen11 dedicated an entire article to criticizing Berlin (and others)’s argumentation. To do so, he adapted Berlin’s arguments and showed why his conclusions do not follow – making for a convincing case. The main point surrounds the idea that “money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom”12. Thinkers such as Berlin believe that not being able to afford something does not mean a lack of freedom, but rather a lack of ability to do so (a lack of means). Hence, poor people simply cannot always exercise their existing freedom. This is the premise that Cohen chooses to disprove as he believes that “to lack money is indeed to be prey to interference”13. The view of poverty restricting what people are able to do with their freedom rather than a restriction of their freedom itself is a misrepresentation of the true case at hand. Freedom is structured by money. There are numerous actions that poor people are unfree to do, simply because they are poor, while ‘non-poor’ people would not face such constraints. Many goods and services are only accessible through money. Cohen gives as an example a woman who is too poor to buy a train ticket to go visit her sister. Even though she is able-bodied and has the ability to board the train, she would be physically prevented from entering it without purchasing a ticket. Hence, to be poor makes you liable to interference14.
Cohen15 also provides a reason explaining why non-poor intellectuals may not share his view. He speculates that the sense of guilt that fortunate people face because of their wealth around poor people would be relieved if they believed that no matter the sufferings they undergo, they do not lack freedom. His perspectives on the topic were most likely shaped in part by his childhood, where he felt the constraints and hardships brought about by not having enough money16.
Another layer within this discussion on negative freedom reveals itself with Wenar’s objections to Cohen. Wenar argues that liberty is not the absence of interference with possible actions, but rather the absence of interference with your rights. Therefore, your liberty cannot be reduced by an interference with something that you do not have a right to (such as someone else’s money). The question then transforms itself into one of morality regarding the list of rights that individuals hold17.
This view of freedom is a positive one, referring to the “real possibilities one has to do and/or to be” – or in other words, their capabilities18. This conception of freedom is supported by Malatesta and Sen, the latter of which sees unfreedom as being identical to inability. Amartya Sen adopts what is known as the capability approach, which concentrates on the capability of individuals to achieve the type of lives that they value. One’s wealth, for example, is not a detailed enough indicator of how one’s life is going. Rather, it depends on their capability to convert it in such a way that it improves their quality of life (Wells, n.d.). When it comes to poverty, Sen understands this to be a deprivation of one’s capabilities to live their desired life19. Hence, if a starving, poor person was offered a job by a capitalist, they would not be made unfree. In fact, they may even obtain more possibilities as they may now, for example, have more capability to be well nourished.
The republican (also known as neo-Roman) view was defended by thinkers such as Rousseau. Here, the main claim was that one should not be subject to the arbitrary will or power of another. To better understand this, it is easiest to think of Rousseau’s arguments against slavery. He believed that every man has a right to their own life and that the right of slavery is an illegitimate one as it is foolish to to state “I make with you a convention wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage”20. While the negative conception of freedom would see a benevolent slave master that never interfered with your actions as not rendering you unfree, Rousseau would disagree. This is because this master could at any point interfere with the slave in ways that they could not control. Hence, he saw the transfer of one’s right of rulling oneself to another person as a form of slavery.
Bringing this back to the example of a starving person accepting a job from a capitalist, Rousseau would argue that this would make one unfree as the employer would hold power over you. An interesting quote to explain this is, “dependence is the condition of possibility of domination”21. This means that once you have made someone unable to live without you, you will eventually be able to enslave them. In this case, the worker would be unable to live without the employer as they would starve without their wage.
As a side-note, Berlin had described Rousseau (and others such as Marx) as employing a positive perception of freedom, which is prone to the aforementioned dangers. Nevertheless, many now are in agreement that this is an inaccurate reading22. Gerald C. MacCallum was a significant pillar in whittling away at the thinkers that Berlin characterized as using the positive notion of liberty. He argued that Berlin had arbitrarily restricted the concept of ‘constraint’ when claiming that negative freedom means an absence of deliberate interference of others. Instead, internal forces can still constrain people and the absence of these would still qualify as negative freedom. Broadening the understanding of ‘constraints’, theorists that Berlin had identified as part of the positive camp could now fit into the negative one23.
This last view of freedom is part of the positive conception of freedom, arguing that one must be able to direct or control their own activity24. Marx and Wood are two thinkers that can be found in this category. Here one finds themselves asking questions such as, ‘Am I in control?’, ‘Am I directing this process?’, and so on. As previously seen, the negative conceptions of freedom would argue that only man-made restrictions would place limits on one’s liberty. While other obstacles, such as poverty, may limit one’s ability to carry out actions, they cannot be categorized as making someone unfree. The self-rule conception contrasts such a view. Here, Marx would classify freedom as one’s ability to exercise control over their environment and over their own social forces25.
As previously introduced, Marx believed that capitalism led to a contradictory life of ‘dual freedom’. One example of such an event includes the worker example. In line with the view of Hobbes and others, one may argue that workers are free to sell their labour. However, since the means of production are the exclusive property of the bourgeois in capitalism, the worker is actually obligated to sell their labour. They are not free in their choice. This point is further enforced when considering the amount of people that hold jobs where their health and safety is at risk, or perhaps even where they are harassed. Economic domination arises between social classes, along with economic exploitation as people are reduced to objects made to work26.
The aforementioned differences between the self-rule and the negative freedom views could be explained by the difficulty to distinguish between ‘objective impossibility’ and man-made obstacles. In other words, is it the case that poor people cannot purchase numerous items (despite not being interfered with) because of a lack of capacity? Or, is the national income distribution to blame, making people’s reason for being poor the consequence of the man-made social order and thus, a restriction on their freedom27.
This article looked at four different conceptions of freedom – negative, real possibilities, republican and freedom as self-rule – trying to understand how each would answer the question of “can we be free under capitalism?”. It was found that the former two would argue that one can, in fact, be free and more possibilities may even be brought along as a consequence of being offered a new job. Alternatively, the latter two views had a different perspective. The Republican view argued that being dependent on your employer for survival means that you are subjected to their arbitrary power and will and therefore, you are unfree. Personally, however, the self-rule conception seemed the most conceivable. This would go beyond the idea that freedom refers to the absence of interference and argue that there must be a possibility to develop one’s capacities. Here, to be free, one would not only need to be independent from the arbitrary power and will of another, but socio-economic conditions that hampered the achievement of reaching one’s full potential would need to be removed.
As a side-note, this article brought up different perspectives on poverty and whether being poor itself makes you unfree. While contradicting opinions are not surprising, it was very intriguing to see arguments on both sides of this. For example, Cohen criticized thinkers such as Berlin who did not understand that poverty carries with it a lack of freedom and even indirectly accused them of doing so to relieve themselves of guilt when surrounded by poor people. Wenar, however, took the discussion into another direction around morality.
1 A. Hyes, ”Important Features of Capitalism. Investopedia”, https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/040715/what-are-most-important-aspects-capitalist-system.asp, June 1, 2021.
2 M. Griffiths, International relations theory for the twenty-first century: an introduction, Routledge, London, 2007, pp. 35–47.
3 Ibidem, p. 36.
4 I. Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, in Four Articles on Liberty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969.
5 P. Raekstad, ”Taking Liberties. Retrieved from: ttps://canvas.uva.nl/courses/24291/files/folder/Slides, 2021.
6 I. Carter, ”Positive and Negative Liberty”, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/, 2016.
7 P. Raekstad, op. cit.
8 I. Carter, op. cit.
9 I. Berlin, op. cit.
10 A. L. Capusella , ”Rethinking the concept of freedom in contemporary capitalism”, LSE Business Review, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2018/11/03/rethinking-the-concept-of-freedom-in-contemporary-capitalism/, November 3, 2018.
11 G. A. Cohen, Chapter Eight, ”Freedom and Money”, in On the currency of egalitarian justice, and other articles in political philosophy, Princeton University Press 2011, pp. 166-200.
12 Ibidem, p. 2.
13 Idem, p. 5.
14 Idem, pp. 11-13.
15 Idem, p. 2.
16 P., Raekstad ”Freedom and Property”, retrieved from: https://canvas.uva.nl/courses/24291/files/folder/Slides, 2021.
18 P. Raekstad, ”Taking Liberties. Retrieved from: ttps://canvas.uva.nl/courses/24291/files/folder/Slides, 2021.
19 M. T. B. Suraidi, Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach To Poverty, https://www.woroni.com.au/words/amartya-sens-capabilities-approach-to-poverty/, August 5, 2014.
20 J.-J. Rousseau, The social contract, book I, 1762, p. 9.
22 P. Raekstad, ”Taking Liberties. Retrieved from: ttps://canvas.uva.nl/courses/24291/files/folder/Slides, 2021.
23 E. Nelson, ”Liberty: One Concept Too Many?”, in Political Theory, 33(1), 2005, pp. 58-78, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/30038395.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6a318d39881ed08b478f597438d35422.
24 P. Raekstad, ”Taking Liberties. Retrieved from: ttps://canvas.uva.nl/courses/24291/files/folder/Slides, 2021.
25 A. Walicki, Marx and Freedom, www.nybooks.com. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1983/11/24/marx-and-freedom/, 1983.
26 M. Griffiths, International relations theory for the twenty-first century: an introduction Routledge, 2007, pp. 35-47.
27 A. Walicki, op. cit.
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