Real Freedom in America Can Only Be Won Through Class Struggle

A long tradition in US thought has emphasized the importance of economic security for ensuring individual liberty. But to truly realize equal freedom for all, we need a socialist politics fighting for democratic control over the economy.

1883 cartoon depicting income inequality and class oppression in the United States by Bernhard Gillam. (Library of Congress vis Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no doubt that individual freedom is fundamental to the American self-conception — as our national anthem has it, the United States is “the land of the free.” Yet despite its obsession with liberty, the United States is in many ways one of the least free countries in the developed world, with highly undemocratic political institutions, a vast carceral state, and a remarkably anti-worker legal regime.

Those facts are in large part the legacy of our “Founding Fathers,” who sought to limit popular rule to protect elite property rights. The free market ideas espoused by the likes of Milton Friedman and other neoliberal ideologues that provided justification for the dismantling of the New Deal order in many ways had their origin in those of America’s founders. Hollowing out the welfare state, weakening trade unions, and defending unrestrained free trade was justified by a vision of individual freedom restricted to a robust defense of the property rights of the wealthy.

On this view, freedom is a matter of people being protected against intrusions on their persons and property by the government, and assuring that people have equal legal rights to participate in the political process. These are by and large the sorts of protections enumerated in the US Bill of Rights, of course, and the later amendments to the Constitution.

But from the time of the United States’ founding, some thinkers, politicians, and civil rights leaders have advocated a broader view of liberty. This is the point of departure of economist Mark Paul’s new book, The Ends of Freedom: Recovering America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. In it, he attempts to excavate this alternative, more radical conception of freedom.

This subterranean tradition, he writes, has argued that the US government should recognize certain basic economic rights, which are necessary to truly guarantee everyone’s freedom and enable all to meaningfully pursue happiness. Paul urges us to recover this tradition, and to that end outlines an ambitious proposal for a twenty-first-century “economic bill of rights,” encompassing the right to a job, housing, health care, a basic income, and a healthy environment, and an array of other worthy reforms. The Ends of Freedom offers a series of policy ideas for realizing these rights, as well as proposals for how the government might finance such an ambitious program.

Paul’s book is a welcome contribution to thinking about policies that might help build a more just, freer society. It is, however, hampered by two shortcomings. On the one hand, it does not push its philosophical argument against a narrow “political” conception of freedom and rights far enough; on the other, it does not grapple seriously with the resistance that capitalist interests pose to establishing and sustaining a robust set of economic rights.

An Alternative Tradition

The Ends of Freedom has three parts: the first an intellectual history of different strands of American thinking about freedom, the second an enumeration of Paul’s proposed economic rights and their component policies (the book’s longest and meatiest section), and a short coda in which the author explains how his proposed policies can be funded.

In the first part, Paul claims the alternative tradition of thinking about rights that he champions stretches back to American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who argued that political freedom and equality required economic security. On those grounds, Paine argued for redistributive taxation and a basic income. Paul tracks related ideas about the government’s responsibility to ensure its citizens’ economic security through Alexander Hamilton and the Radical Republicans to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who explicitly proposed an economic bill of rights. Martin Luther King Jr later revived a similar idea in the form of his Freedom Budget, which he saw as necessary to fully realize the promise of equal civil and political rights.

According to Paul, this tradition has been largely lost to us thanks to the defeat of redistributive liberalism in the 1970s, and the resulting rise of the ideology of neoliberalism: the view that heavy-handed government interventions for the sake of greater equality or other social goals are usually harmful, and that governments should be content with protecting and facilitating the free choices of market actors.

But we know the fruits of this doctrine: gaping inequality, stagnant wages for workers, the persistence of extreme poverty, and a climate crisis driven by the very market forces we were told to trust. Paul therefore argues that we need to reassert the importance of economic rights, retrieving a radical tradition suppressed by decades of conservative hegemony.

The book’s second section lays out in detail the economic rights to which Paul thinks we are all entitled, along with his favored policies for fulfilling them. They comprise:

  • The right to work: through economic policy promoting full employment and a federal jobs guarantee;
  • The right to housing: through rent control and an ambitious public housing program;
  • The right to an education: through free public education for all from pre-K through college;
  • The right to health care: through a single-payer Medicare for All system;
  • The right to a basic income and banking: through an unconditional basic income and a public banking system;
  • And the right to a healthy environment: through a Green New Deal including public investment, regulation, and carbon pricing.

Paul concludes the book by answering the question “How will we pay for it?” guided by John Maynard Keynes’s quip that “anything we can actually do, we can afford.” More precisely, Paul’s answer is twofold. He argues, first, that the United States does not need to fear expansive deficit spending to finance economic rights, since such spending can be undertaken while growing the national debt sustainably, and in fact should be undertaken if it helps the economy grow.

But Paul acknowledges that the ambitious program of public investment and redistribution he’s recommending does have to deal with real resource constraints, in terms of labor, land, and raw materials. He proposes to address supply constraints through public investment in various areas, price controls to deal with short-term bottlenecks (e.g., rent control), and reallocations within the federal budget.

The Question of Property

There’s a lot to like in Paul’s policy proposals — which resemble, in many ways, the platform on which Bernie Sanders ran in 2020. Yet his historical-philosophical argument for the importance of economic rights, and his justification of its feasibility, seem incomplete.

Adopting the framework of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Paul says that economic rights are necessary to ensure positive liberty or freedom — the “freedom to” do certain things or be a certain kind of person — in addition to negative liberty — the “freedom from” interference or constraints imposed by others. Negative freedom corresponds to the civil and political rights protecting freedom of speech, due process, and the like; positive freedom corresponds to economic rights like the right to housing or the right to a quality education.

But this distinction, which Berlin — a White emigree from the Soviet Union — formed under the polarizing climate of anti-communism created by the Cold War, ought to be interrogated. When the constraints imposed by a capitalist market economy are taken into view, the problems with this framework become obvious. For instance, if I lack the resources that are supposed to be guaranteed by economic rights, this may deprive me of negative freedom, not just positive freedom.

This was the objection raised by the analytic Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen in his engagements with Berlin. Property rights, construed by Berlin as negative, also grant their possessor the power to intervene with the actions of others. When English capitalists set up enclosures in the countryside in the eighteenth century, they were not simply asserting their negative rights to property but restricting the right of free movement of the rural peasantry.

Money also confers rights on its possessor in ways ignored by Berlin’s dichotomy. If, for example, I try to occupy an apartment without paying rent, the landlord has a right to evict me; if I try to take bread from a grocery store without paying, the manager has a right to call the cops on me for shoplifting. Money allows us to pay landlords, business owners, and others to get them not to so interfere. So, I don’t merely lack freedom to do certain things if I lack money; I lack freedom from interference in my choices by others.

Maybe the economic bill of rights Paul champions, then, should be thought of as necessary for ensuring everyone equal maximum levels of negative freedom, in addition to securing positive freedoms. This is not just a semantic point. It shows that advocates of neoliberalism, contrary to their claims, are not defending one form of freedom while neglecting (or opposing) another. They are in fact failing to consistently defend the conception of freedom that they themselves espouse. (Paul makes a version of this point too, following the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson in arguing that neoliberalism has led to the creation of tyrannical “private governments” in the workplace. But the right to a democratic workplace is not included in his proposed economic bill of rights.)

Once we accept that even negative freedom is heavily constrained by the distribution of property rights and money, then we should recognize that how we distribute property and money is no less important to securing equal freedom for all than what civil or political rights we recognize. But acknowledging that should lead us to ask why, in the first place, we accept a system in which a few individuals own the means of production, which allow them to command the labor of others who are forced to survive by the sweat of their brow.

Paul of course accepts that lack of economic security translates to reduced freedom, and his proposed economic rights are meant to address this. His proposals do seek to impinge on capitalists’ power, by, for instance, giving workers increased bargaining power and weakening “labor discipline” through a policy of full employment, a federal job guarantee, a basic income, and giving the state authority to rein in destructive enterprises (like big polluters) through strong regulation.

Paul’s solutions also attempt to correct gross income and wealth inequalities with extensive redistribution. But he stops short of arguing that there is a fundamental injustice in giving capitalists control over society’s productive assets — or that adequate respect for individual freedom requires us to reevaluate that control.

Force Decides

Part of the cause for these blind spots in Paul’s approach is related to the inadequacy with which he addresses issues around political strategy. Despite recognizing that corporations and the rich are likely to fiercely resist most of these policies, Paul says very little about how such a program might be enacted over that resistance, or how it might be defended and sustained once in place.

The American tradition from which Paul draws inspiration, after all, is over two hundred years old. We should ask: If ideas about the need for economic rights have been floating around for so long, why — with partial exceptions, like the New Deal and Great Society programs — have they not been realized? And why have even partial achievements been rolled back or undermined since the 1970s?

The phenomenon of retrenchment is not unique to the United States. In the countries that have done most to realize elements of Paul’s vision, the neoliberal era has seen a retreat from bold social democratic policies. Capitalists used the political and economic crises of the ’70s as an opportunity to launch a counterattack on trade unions, left parties, and the welfare state, successfully imposing a more business-friendly, anti-worker regime throughout the developed world.

Business’s neoliberal assault was enabled by capitalists’ immense financial and structural power, and they have used that power to successfully resist efforts at a revival of social democracy. Social democracy was won by strong left parties with a mass base in organized labor movements that were able to use their collective might to overcome capitalists’ immense power; when the power of labor and the Left waned, business was able to reassert itself. Neoliberalism is, as the political scientist Adolph Reed Jr has succinctly put it, simply capitalism without a working-class opposition.

To his credit, Paul recognizes that “much like the victories won during the New Deal and the civil rights movement, economic rights will require mass movements and mass struggle.” Strangely, however, he has little to say about the dynamics of class struggle that have allowed capitalists to undermine the social democratic project globally — or why a United States that recognized his economic bill of rights wouldn’t fall prey to the same fate.

This reflects a broader tendency on Paul’s part to focus on the power of ideas rather than classes organized around material interests. The main villains of his story are intellectuals like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who marshaled arguments against the New Deal and similar redistributive projects. But business didn’t need Hayek or Friedman to tell it that a successful political mobilization and assault on trade unions was a good idea. Capitalists’ interest in restoring profitability was the motivating force.

Simply put, capitalists have a strong interest in undermining attempts at redistributing wealth and improving the situation of the vast majority — and leaving the lion’s share of decision-making power over investment and production in their hands provides them the leverage to do so. This gives us a reason to excavate another forgotten tradition of American thinking about freedom, one that Paul largely sidelines. This tradition, represented by Eugene V. Debs and labor radicals from the Knights of Labor through the International Workers of the World to twentieth-century socialists and communists, championed not just economic rights but full-blooded “industrial democracy.”

They fought, in other words, for socialism: democratic, collective control over society’s productive resources. Socialists like Debs thought that this industrial democracy was necessary for actually realizing the ideals of freedom that the Founding Fathers spoke about.

Maybe this is where Paul’s sympathies ultimately lie, too. Discussing Bernie Sanders’s definition of democratic socialism as “[recognizing] that economic rights are human rights,” Paul says:

Is Sanders’s version of democratic socialism indeed socialism? No. Socialism entails democratic ownership of the means of production. But in establishing and mainstreaming a social democratic vision for economic rights, one rooted in American history, Sanders has forged a public path to thinking in such terms.

I would agree that a struggle for the kind of bold social democratic program that Sanders advanced in his presidential campaign is a promising path for advancing a socialist project. By raising ordinary people’s expectations and mobilizing them around the idea of taking on billionaires and corporations, Sanders’s campaigns represented the possibility of building a mass political movement to challenge ruling-class power in a more thoroughgoing way. The greatest contribution of The Ends of Freedom is in rigorously working out the sorts of freedom-expanding policy demands that democratic socialists and their allies might champion in their efforts to build this sort of working-class political movement.