On ‘economic freedom’

19 Mar

In discussions of politics and economics, you’ll often hear the term ‘economic freedom’ thrown around. What, then, does this mean? Well, it doesn’t necessarily have a coherent meaning, as is applicable to just about every term ubiquitous in political debate, and to some extent its popularity can be explained by the fact that it allows various ideologues to associate their chosen form of capitalism with the positive connotations of the word ‘freedom’; this buzzword apologia, however, does not exhaust the entire significance of the phrase. Of course, the decidedly disgusting consequences of the positive associations of ‘freedom’ and its associate words upon human language use are rather evident to any who look at the decaying corpse that is political discourse – if I were less mechanistic in my Marxism, I might suggest that a public for whom ‘rule’, ‘authority’ and ‘power’ played the same linguistic-rockstar role as ‘freedom’ does now would have attained successful proletarian revolution decades ago – but nonetheless it must not be forgotten that political ideology, with its myriad chimeras, is a reflection of economic reality, and that the buzzwords of an age are the buzzwords of its ruling class. Hence, let us seek to uncover just what this delightful mirage of freedom is, by dissecting the rotting brain-cells of capital to find these mischievous neuron perpetrators.

In the first place, we must try to find out the subject of this ‘economic freedom’. So, whose freedom is this? The freedom of individual property owners. Economic man, in capitalist society, is property-owning man; economic freedom must pertain to the property owner. This individual is at first taken as something abstract; their actual property, which may be quite different from that of others, is disregarded, and what is important is merely that they have the potential of private property ownership. Of what does the freedom of property owners consist? Of the ability to freely dispose of their property, without obstructions from without. This ability contains within itself the right to purchase and sale, the ability to alienate one’s commodity, one’s private property, and by this to gain another commodity which is itself now one’s private property; in a sense, one never gives up one’s private property over the first commodity, but rather this private property is proclaimed equal to private property in another commodity, it is equated to private property in another commodity, as soon as exchange is established and hence ownership of one commodity becomes equivalent to ownership of another. What this freedom consists of here is, then, the freedom to freely dispose of value.

However, this freedom hardly appears without its customary fetters for the individual commodity-seller. For in order to sell their commodity at a certain price, or even at all, there must be demand of a certain level; likewise the level of ‘supply’ is conditioned not simply by them, but by many independent producers. To exercise their freedom, they must set their commodity free; it must be allowed to roam the market and exchange in accordance with its own conditions. It is not the individual’s arbitrary will that determines the price, but rather it is contingent upon multiple market factors, upon the effective demand, as expressed in other commodities, upon the supply provided by other producers, and so on. The commodity acts according to its own nature. We hence have the initial formulation of the freedom of property; upon the market, it is not individuals alienating their commodities, but alienated commodities which are free. The individuals must unleash their product to society, to the market and its demands, and hence have no absolute autonomy here.

What, then, about money, the physical form taken by value itself? If people may freely dispose of value, then they may freely dispose of money. Money may realize itself in any commodity’s use value; it is either non-discriminatory or a whore, depending on which side of the language-war subcultures one resides within. All that remains is for labour capcity, labour-power, to become a commodity which can itself be freely disposed of, hence freely bought with money. This implies the suspension of any immediate unity of the individual with their means and conditions of production, their freedom from the productive forces. Of course, if the individual is to live up to the abstract, equal individual of bourgeois society, they cannot be considered as having any inherent relationship or ownership of the means of production due to their specificities, and rather all must be treated alike, as ‘economically free’ private property owners. If they are to be free, of the means of production must they be freed. One could hardly deny them self-ownership; the freedom to alienate their labour-power, their body, as they wish. This implies already that, rather than being tied up to any particular means of production or land, they must become purely private individuals, with either money or labour-power.

Yet the free economic subject is still free, and hence free to invest their money as they want. As private property owners, they are free, because they are free to alienate their private property, to set their private property free. In that case, they are also free to invest their money in labour-power, to make this labour-power their own property, and hence to use it within the bounds of the freely agreed contract. Hence, their freedom to dispense of their own private property turns into personal power over others, although of course only in terms of the freely signed contract (we can’t forget the freely signed contract!). However, of what does their power here ultimately consist? In the fact that they are able to buy labour-power, that they therefore gain private property over it and can use it towards their own profit. It is because, and only because, they have money that they have power. If anyone else had the same money, they could use it in the same ways, as follows from the principle from which we started, that of the equal, abstract property-owner; they could invest it in labour-power and still come out the same. It is money that rules, not people. So, what of the right to freely dispose of property, the freedom of the property-owner? Well, it is maintained, but not quite as it was envisioned.

As we saw, the relationship of capitalist and proletarian is quite consistent with this kind of freedom; both freely exchange their goods, their property, and on this level appear as essentially equal. This freedom can only be disturbed by the infringements of others. However, this exchange cannot be left at this, observed in isolation, but must rather be understood as simply a moment in the capitalist production process. Now, in the first place, the freedom of the property-owner establishes that the capitalist is free to dispose of their money in labour-power. However, as we have seen, the capitalist as capitalist does not count as the specific individual that they are, but rather as simply the human embodiment of a certain quantity of money, as a functionary of objective capital. It is, in fact, the money which initiates the process, and the capitalist is simply a functionary by which this money realizes its inner nature in exchange – exchange, of course, subject to social forces over which the individual capitalist has no control – and if the property-owner is here declared free, the real meaning of this is that capital is free. It is through money that the whole process takes place, and hence freedom for the capitalist can only be the undiminished power of money – not its infinite ability to buy, but rather a lack of restrictions on its functioning which fall outside its essential nature – the freedom of money. The freedom of the capitalist to freely dispose of their property, to hence buy and use labour-power, is the freedom of money capital, of value, to freely expand itself through its realization in means of production and labour-power, a process in which the individual personality of the property-owner falls out of consideration.

If one merely looks at the initial act of exchange between labour-power and capital, of course it will appear characterized by the same sort of ‘freedom’ as simple commodity circulation (they are not wholly segregated, of course, and the form of freedom being the freedom of value is implicit in simple commodity circulation itself.) This exchange by itself does not leave the realm of simple commodity circulation. However, we can hardly neglect that that is by no means the end of the story. The use-value of labour-power is the production of a surplus-value; the only purpose it posseses, which allows it to represent a use-value here, is that of expanding value. This first exchange is by its own nature just a moment in a larger process, a process whose end, unlike simple commodity purchase, is not a use-value, but value itself. In ‘normal’ consumption, the product’s value is annihilated by consumption, where it ceases to be; in capital’s consumption, the value must be not only maintained, but expanded, and therefore appears as continuous throughout the process rather than ending at its beginning. In that case, we may not regard the initial exchange as autonomous, either from the perspective of the use-value of labour-power or the value represented by capital; it is merely a prelude to a larger procession. In the production process itself, it is indeed capital’s freedom which is asserted, the freedom of value to expand itself; of course, this was therefore implicit in the initial freedom of the capital-labour-power exchange, therefore in the very form of ‘economic freedom’ itself, inasmuch as it was consistent with the initial exchange. Conversely, what of the freedom of labour-power apparent in the earlier exchange? Now, labour-power is incorporated into capital: it counts as a part of capital’s investment and hence of capital, and its functioning therefore counts primarily as the execution of abstract labour, primarily abstract surplus labour, which immediately falls into the hands of capital. It enacts the aims of another, and hence appears as simply a part of capital precisely because it has no aims of its own, but only those of capital.

We hence arrive at the conclusion: economic freedom is the freedom of capital. Economic freedom simply involves the stripping away of external fetters to the progress of capitalist production, the setting free of capital to thrust forward without delay; as such, economic freedom must be specified with regards to the state of capital at a given time, and the forces external to its nature which fetter it and prevent it from developing as much as it would if set free. The rhetoric on economic freedom both reflects the essentially atomized nature of individuals in capitalism, in the form of abstract property-owners and commodity-sellers, and generally ignores the fact that this very abstractness means that people’s property comes to rule over the human beings themselves, and hence that what was supposed to be individual freedom becomes freedom of capital in a capitalist context.


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