Jacobin - October 2020
The topic of freedom was raised when I was giving some talks in Peru. The students there were very interested in the question: “Does socialism require a surrender of individual freedom?”The right wing has managed to appropriate the concept of freedom as its own and to use it as a weapon in class struggle against socialists. The subservience of the individual to state control imposed by socialism or communism is something to be avoided, they said, at all costs.My reply was that we should not give up on the idea of individual freedom as being part of what an emancipatory socialist project is about. The achievement of individual liberties and freedoms is, I argued, a central aim of such emancipatory projects. But that achievement requires collectively building a society where each one of us has adequate life chances and life possibilities to realize each one of our own potentialities.
Marx and Freedom
Marx had a few interesting things to say on this topic. One of them is that “the realm of freedom begins when the realm of necessity is left behind.” Freedom means nothing if you don’t have enough to eat, if you are denied access to adequate healthcare, housing, transportation, education, and the like. The role of socialism is to provide those basic necessities so that then people are free to do exactly what they want.
The endpoint of a socialist transition is a world in which individual capacities and powers are liberated entirely from wants, needs, and other political and social constraints. Rather than conceding that the right wing has a monopoly over the notion of individual freedom, we need to reclaim the idea of freedom for socialism itself.
But Marx also pointed out that freedom is a double-edged sword. Laborers in a capitalist society, he says, are free in a double sense. They can freely offer their labor power to whomsoever they want in the labor market. They can offer it on whatever conditions of contract they can freely negotiate.
But they are at the same time un-free, because they have been “freed” from any control over or access to the means of production. They have, therefore, to surrender their labor power to the capitalist in order to live.
This constitutes their double-edged freedom. For Marx this is the central contradiction of freedom under capitalism. In the chapter on the working day in Capital, 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 doing exactly the work I specify. That is what I demand of you when I hire you.” And the capitalist is free to do that in a market society because, as we know, market society is about bidding about this and bidding about that.
On the other hand, the worker is also free to say, “You don’t have a right to make me work 14 hours a day. You don’t have a right to do anything you like with my labor power, particularly if that shortens my life and endangers my health and well-being. I am only willing to do a fair day’s work at a fair day’s wage.”
Given the nature of a market society, both the capitalist and the worker are right in terms of what they’re demanding. So, says Marx, they are both equally right by the law of exchanges that dominate in the market. Between equal rights, he then says, force decides. Class struggle between capital and labor decides the issue. The outcome rests on the power relation between capital and labor which can at some point turn coercive and violent. ...
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