The Myth of Freedom
The Myths Upholding Capitalism: Part 3
This is the third piece in my series trying to debunk some of the core beliefs that uphold capitalism and prevent change, and presenting alternative ways of thinking about these concepts. The first was on how we think about the idea of deserving, and the second was about our understanding of individualism. I mention them here because you’ll see threads from both emerge in this discussion of freedom, and because they might be helpful. Either way, hope you enjoy this piece, and that the series as a whole is useful to you or some of the people you know!
I am not opposed to freedom, but I do oppose a particular definition of freedom that limits our collective ability to make change, and upholds the status quo even as many of its believers think of themselves as outsiders or fighters of the elite. This understanding of freedom can be summarized as “negative freedom.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines negative freedom as simply, “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” I’ve talked about this particular definition before, so I won’t dwell too long on it, but the idea of freedom as just absence is extremely limited and limiting. Sure, I’m for the government not spying on us, and for dramatically limiting the power and scope of policing on the road to abolition, but what does negative liberty miss? What’s left out?
A lot. A whole lot is left out when we define liberty only as a lack of obstacles in our path. This definition, so prevalent partially because of the colonial origins of this country and an understanding of freedom that was hammered out on a violent frontier, now serves as a powerful barrier to working class empowerment, to the elimination of white supremacy, and to real democracy. Most clearly, a conception of freedom and liberty that is solely negative leaves out the possibilities of positive liberty. Positive liberty is, “the possibility of acting in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.” When we celebrate the idea of freedom only as the absence of constraints, we leave out the possibility of building a society where people really have control of their lives, both as individuals and as a collective. And we can all agree that having control of our lives, a possibility that can be hard to fathom for most people today, sounds a lot more like real liberty. But we can most likely also agree that a world where we are able to more fully shape own lives feels pretty far out of reach. Because, right now, it is. At least for everyone who has to work for a living.
There are a bunch of reasons that positive freedom, the ability for us to have the power to guide our own lives, is so far out of reach, and they work together like stones propping up the arch of capitalist, oligarchic control. For instance, this piece comes after my essay on individualism because a positive approach to freedom must be democratic and collective, and our current emphasis on the individual is tied up with the negative approach that says “freedom means the right to protect my property, to do whatever I want to do, even to harm others in the name of my individual liberties.” And while I want a society where each person is free and feels free, it can be difficult to overcome the paradox that collective action and collective democratic systems and structures are necessary for truly robust individual freedom. For example, if we threw off the oligarchy currently ruling the United States, a vast majority of us would agree that we all should have universal healthcare. With access to healthcare guaranteed, wouldn’t you feel, and be, more free? I know I would be much freer to look for jobs without worrying about the benefits package at each place. I would feel freer to quit a job I didn’t like, because my healthcare wouldn’t be tied to my employment. I would be more free, and it would come not just because I as an individual was more powerful, but because we collectively as working class people gained more power and worked together to use it democratically and beneficially.
But, crucially, that model of freedom first requires an initial collective investment. In this case it would require both the paying of taxes or some alternative that still amounted to a collective decision to sacrifice and contribute to the greater good, and to our own good. Likewise, if workplaces were owned by the workers instead of by a few initial investors or a hedge fund etc., how would that change our level of freedom? Well, many people would be a lot wealthier. A few people would be significantly less wealthy, but most of us would gain tremendously. And with that greater wealth for most working class people would come a greater degree of liberty. We would gain a freedom of movement and a greater parity of influence in the political activity or decision making of society. Maybe most significantly we would gain an equal voice in the conditions of our workplaces. I would be one of twenty-five or so people at my current job, for example, who shared the freedom of deciding how many hours we work. Maybe we’d switch to a four-day workweek, maybe a three-day week. Maybe we’d work 5 or 6 hour days or maybe we’d change the type of work we do, or the structure of the organization. The point is that we would have the freedom to choose, to collectively decide, while right now only the bosses have the power to make these calls. If this particular change, with workers owning their workplaces, were to spread across the globe there would be unprecedented levels of wealth redistribution and a mass redistribution of power, a leveling that would bring tremendous freedom and much greater control of our lives to nearly all of us.
If you find this series and this writing helpful please consider a paid subscription to make more of it possible! - Josh
Who would lose out in this equation? This question helps us see who benefits from the current, dominant idea of negative freedom. A handful of people would lose quite a bit. They would lose more money than anyone could ever spend in a lifetime, money they currently have but will never even be able use. And, crucially, they would lose power. The current economic arrangement that grants a very small number of people an unfathomable amount of wealth also enables those same people to have a disproportionate amount of power. This is the society that negative freedom helps to enshrine and uphold. We’re told that the existing arrangement, and the existing idea of liberty, allows each of us to protect ourselves, to build wealth, to be powerful and free individuals. But it’s very hard to argue that this individualistic utopian vision bears much resemblance to the reality we live in.
One of the periods most associated with rugged individualism and the conception of negative freedom that lives on today is the ‘Wild West,’ with its homesteading, exploration, gold rushes where men got rich quick, and more. Yet distinguishing the truth from the fantastic in this era provides a dramatic contrast that brings the present into sharper relief. Specifically, the era of rapid Western expansion coincided with a handful of robber barons getting immensely wealthy from railroads, mining, and other industries, while most folks on the frontier did not in fact suddenly strike it rich. At the same time, native peoples were decimated, shoved violently onto reservations, and forced to abandon their ways of life. The grand vision of freedom, where a man can protect himself with his six shooter and find gold or oil overnight, was a mirage that masked violence, poverty, and the development of an elite extractive class whose levels of wealth are only now being reached again by the super-rich.
I find the Westward expansion period so revealing because it pairs the images that have largely come to be associated with our culture of rugged individualism, and the supposed freedom it entails, with the rise of the robber baron. And this is no coincidence. In a capitalist economy those who have the most are best poised to exploit new opportunities. This is why even the most conventional economics class or textbook will explain to you the danger of monopolies. Big companies with piles of cash, thousands of workers under them, and an established infrastructure are best positioned to gobble up competitors, extract wealth from a new location or technology, and grow. This is what happened during the robber baron era, and what’s happening again today.
So the idea of negative freedom in the economic sphere, that we should prioritize the absence of regulations and restrictions, enables the big fish to feast while leaving more and more people barely able to stay afloat. And those big fish also develop more and more political power as time passes. We’re not that far removed from the era when these oligarchs would outright stuff ballot boxes, and now we’re in a period of unlimited spending on campaigns. We know how concentrated wealth is intertwined with concentrated political power, and upholding the idea of negative liberty as the only way we can be free allows both of these detrimental trends in society to flourish and grow, unrestrained.
We don’t need to leave negative liberty behind, completely. All of us should be able to live free from harm, from our government or other forces and individuals. But it’s time to add to this conception that is severely limited on its own and allows the few to run roughshod over the many. It’s time to be expansive with what we mean when we say freedom, and we can start with a big dose of positive liberty, with injecting society and our organizing and our governance and economic structures with the idea that real liberty means the opportunity to have a meaningful say in our lives. This means democratizing our society, everyone getting a say in how our world works. And while we know we won’t get there overnight, we can start in small ways with our neighbors and coworkers. Even these small steps will allow us to see and feel the power of changing our conception of freedom, and will change the minds of those who participate in these experiments in liberty.
In Letters on the Autonomy Project Janet Sarbanes takes it a step further. She introduces the idea of autonomy, and says that we should develop an “understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective as something generative and mutualistic, not limiting and antagonistic.” Adding more positive liberty, adding to the discussion and to our material reality as much as possible the ideas and tools to allow us to collectively build a better future, is crucial. But it is, in many ways, just the start. As Ursula Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” And she was right. We must innovate new systems, and that process can’t be limited by restricting our imagination to that which is already currently understood and practiced.
I very much think we need more worker ownership and control of our economy and the political system. I think we need stronger communities and a more equitable distribution of resources around the globe. I think all of this would amount to much more freedom, much greater happiness. But what other innovative ideas are out there? What political structures and cultural shifts can we pursue that would enable a sustainable society, a just world, and the joy of true liberty? We must start, here and now, by practicing real democracy in our homes, neighborhoods, and unions. And we must also have the humility to know that these experiments will be just the start, and that it might take generations for real positive liberty, real autonomy to be truly present in the lives of our decedents. But now is the time for radical new visions of freedom, the time to let go of the myths and beliefs that don’t serve us, the time to try something new. A better world, a livable world, demands it.
Thank you for reading this piece! If you found it valuable, please consider a paid subscription to support more of this writing! Thank you, Josh.
I agree with your thoughtful and considered essay. I worry, however, that we've arrived at this understanding of the ravages of oligarchy far too late.
Global warming is here...disinformation campaigns are everywhere...mass shootings occur daily...Silicon Valley billionaires are racing to obliterate jobs with AI.
People embroiled in culture wars willingly sacrifice their freedoms. The victims of culture wars or vulture capitalism are consumed with survival. The rest are locked is a daily battle to prevent civil rights from decimation by partisan politicians and judges.
We can't build a better ship while our current ship is sinking.
If Americans had the fortitude we've seen in other countries to engage in mass, sustained protests, perhaps there would be a chance. If voters turn out in tidal wave numbers to stop the authoritarian slide of state and federal government, perhaps there would be a chance.
I can say that anything is possible, but I'm no longer sure that it's true.
An excellent piece that reminded me of Joan Didion's Where I Was From. The book explores California's cultural relationship with this idea of "absolute freedom" while also leaning on government subsidies, mass incarceration, and exploitation of local populations to thrive. Highly recommend as a supplement to your ongoing studies. Thanks for this essay!