David Harvey: Socialists Must Be the Champions of Freedom

Right-wing propaganda claims that socialism is the enemy of individual freedom. The exact opposite is true: socialists work to create the material conditions under which people can truly be free, without the rigid constraints capitalism imposes on their lives.

This is the paradox of our current situation: that in the name of freedom, we’ve actually adopted a liberal utopian ideology which is a barrier to the achievement of real freedom. (Andrés Gómez Tarazona / Flickr)

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.

A Double-Edged Sword

This idea of freedom as a double-edged sword is very important to look at in more detail. One of the best elaborations on the topic is an essay by Karl Polanyi. In his book The Great Transformation, Polanyi says that there are good forms of freedom and bad forms of freedom.

Among the bad forms of freedom that he listed were the freedoms to exploit one’s fellows without limit; the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurate service to the community; the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit; the freedom to profit from public calamities or naturally induced calamities, some of which are secretly engineered for private advantage.

But, Polanyi continues, the market economy under which these freedoms throve also produced freedoms we prize highly: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s own job.

While we may cherish these freedoms for their own sake, they are, to a large extent, by-products of the same economy that is also responsible for the evil freedoms. Polanyi’s answer to this duality makes for some very strange reading, given the current hegemony of neoliberal thinking and the way in which freedom is presented to us by existing political power.

He writes about it this way: “The passing of the market economy” — that is, getting beyond the market economy — “can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom.” Now, that’s a pretty shocking statement — to say that the real freedom begins after we leave the market economy behind. He continues:

Juridical and actual freedom can be made more wider and more general than ever before. Regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all — freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right, extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus, will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

Freedom Without Justice

Now, this idea of a society based upon justice and freedom, justice and liberty, seems to me to have been the political agenda of the student movement of the 1960s and the so-called ’68 generation. There was a widespread demand for both justice and freedom: freedom from the coercion of the state, freedom from coercion imposed by corporate capital, freedom from market coercions but also tempered by the demand for social justice.

The capitalist political response to this in the 1970s was interesting. It entailed working through these demands and, in effect, saying: “We give in to you on the freedoms (though with some caveats) but you forget the justice.”

Giving in on the freedoms was circumscribed. It meant for the most part freedom of choice in the market. The free market and freedom from state regulation were the answers to the question of freedom. But just forget about the justice. That would be delivered by market competition, which was supposedly so organized as to assure that everyone would get their just deserts. The effect, however, was to unleash many of the evil freedoms (e.g. the exploitation of others) in the name of the virtuous freedoms.

This turn was something that Polanyi clearly recognized. The passage to the future that he envisaged is blocked by a moral obstacle, he observed, and the moral obstacle was something which he called “liberal utopianism.” I think we still face the problems posed by this liberal utopianism. It’s an ideology which is pervasive in the media and in political discourses.

The liberal utopianism of, say, the Democratic Party is one of the things that stands in the way of the achievement of real freedom. “Planning and control,” Polanyi wrote, “are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be the essentials of freedom.” This was what the main ideologists of the neoliberalism put forward.

Beyond the Market

To me, this is one of the key issues of our time. Are we going to go beyond the limited freedoms of the market and the regulation of our lives by the laws of supply and demand, or are we going to accept, as Margaret Thatcher put it, that there is no alternative? We become free of state control but slaves of the market. To this there is no alternative, beyond this there is no freedom. This is what the right wing preaches, and this is what many people have come to believe.

This is the paradox of our current situation: that in the name of freedom, we’ve actually adopted a liberal utopian ideology which is a barrier to the achievement of real freedom. I do not think it is a world of freedom when somebody who wants to get an education has to pay an immense amount of money for it and has student debt stretching way, way into their future.

In Britain, a large proportion of the housing provision in the 1960s was in the public sector; it was social housing. When I was growing up, that social housing was the basic provision of a necessity at a reasonably low cost. Then Margaret Thatcher came along and privatized it all, and said, basically: “You will be much freer if you own your property and you can actually become part of a property-owning democracy.”

And so, instead of 60 percent of the housing being in the public sector, we suddenly go to a situation where only about 20 percent — or maybe even less — of the housing is in the public sector. Housing becomes a commodity, and commodity then becomes a part of speculative activity. To the degree that it becomes a vehicle of speculation, the price of the property goes up, and you get a rising cost of housing with no actual increase in direct provision.

We are building cities, building housing, in a way which provides tremendous freedom for the upper classes at the same time as it actually produces un-freedom for the rest of the population. This is what I think is meant when Marx made that famous comment: that the realm of necessity actually has to be overcome in order for the realm of freedom to be achieved.

The Realm of Freedom

This is the way in which market freedoms limit the possibilities, and from that standpoint, I think that the socialist perspective is to do as Polanyi suggests; that is, we collectivize the question of access to freedom, access to housing. We turn it away from being something which is simply in the market to being something in the public domain. Housing in the public domain is our slogan. This is one of the basic ideas of socialism in the contemporary system — to put things in the public domain.

It is often said that in order to achieve socialism, we have to surrender our individuality and we have to give up something. Well, to some degree, yes, that might be true; but there is, as Polanyi insisted, a greater freedom to be achieved when we go beyond the cruel realities of individualized market freedoms.

I read Marx as saying the task is to maximize the realm of individual freedom, but that can only happen when the realm of necessity is taken care of. The task of a socialist society is not to regulate everything that goes on in society; not at all. The task of a socialist society is to make sure that all of the basic necessities are taken care of — freely provided — so that people can then do exactly what they want when they want.

If you ask everybody right now, “How much free time do you have?” the typical answer is “I have almost no free time whatsoever. It’s all taken up with this, that, and everything else.” If real freedom is a world in which we have free time to do whatever we want, then the socialist emancipatory project proposes that as central to its political mission. This is something that we can and must all work towards.