This is a case I presented at LibertyCon, a conference for young libertarians in Washington D.C., on March 3rd. At this event, I debated Bryan Caplan in a session entitled “Capitalism vs. Socialism.” I advocated the latter.
Good afternoon! I’d like to begin by thanking the Institute for Humane Studies for inviting me out to debate on this fine Saturday, Dr. Caplan for agreeing to talk with me about subjects of such great interest to us both, and you all for coming out to listen. It’s fairly easy, though no less a pleasure, to receive invitations to speak with and before people with whom I’m all in agreement, but it’s a special privilege to receive the opportunity to present my thoughts and discuss them with people on the other side of the ideological divide. As far as debates go, I’m a little out of practice — the last time I devoted considerable time to debate was in high school — but I hope I can still contribute to a provocative (hopefully even entertaining!) session for you today.
It seems very fitting to me that we should discuss these matters at LibertyCon, as I do agree that we are currently facing a crisis of liberty. The great authors of the Western tradition, the ancients and the late antique and medieval luminaries who laid out the foundations for what remains true and beautiful in our culture, would look see us as profoundly unfree.
There is the first and greatest matter of interior unfreedom. In the Phaedrus, one of his Socratic dialogues, Plato had his mentor liken the human soul to a team of two winged horses led by their charioteer. “The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side,” Socrates says, “is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone.” Meanwhile, “the other horse is a companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears-deaf as a post-and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.” The bad horse, undisciplined and self-indulgent, is always dragging its poor yokemate and charioteer into pathetic and immoral behavior; it is unbridled lust and greed and ravenous want, and its domination of its team is the very definition of unfreedom. Nobody ruled by such mad appetites could be said to be truly free.
Then there is the matter of exterior freedom. In Politics, Aristotle considered the natural slave, “one who is,” in the words of Greek philosophy scholar Joseph Karbowski, “naturally suited for slavery…a human being who is by nature suited to be a piece of property that belongs to someone else and functions as a second-order tool for action.” Aristotle’s natural slaves are confined to pursuing the interests and purposes of others, he imagines, by a kind of moral and psychological weakness; so much less binds us to the same sort of existence, performing labor that only serves another person’s ends, selling off the possibility of living toward our own. And we are not short on masters: St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, warned the idle rich of his day: “Possessions are so called so that we may possess them, not so that they possess us. Why do you regard the master as a slave? Why do you invert the order?” No longer is this inversion an affliction strictly of the rich; it characterizes our entire social order.
It’s something of a shame now to see these greats peering down at us from the occasional courthouse pediment or Cathedral niche. What would they make of us now? We’re ruled by passions and owned by things; we have been taught that freedom is a vast blankness defined only by its featurelessness, and we spend our lives laboring at the behest of others, in hopes of surpassing those nearest to us instead of cooperating with them.
The story of how we got to where we are is the story of the rise of capitalism — a historical condition in which economic and political power are arrayed according to the interests of capital owners, who in turn dominate their social landscapes. Capitalism itself sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.
I. Capitalism and the will
Consider the bondage of the will. Wherever the bourgeoisie has got the upperhand, Marx and Engels observed, “it has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Capitalism demanded rationalization: the weighing and measuring and ordering and specifying of everything, not least because capitalism simply isn’t possible without rigorous and extensive bookkeeping. The objective of capitalism is the generation of profit, and to maximize that end it helps to be thoroughly, coldly calculating about things. It wasn’t as though no one in the Western world had ever thought or behaved this way before: “Rather,” the late Christian socialist scholar John Hughes wrote, “it is that this practice came to be differently evaluated, and this novel interpretation of capitalism as moral came to a new dominance.”
So the spirit of morally neutral, self-interested utilitarianism came to displace all that had come before. Hughes noted that “the spirit of modern capitalism appears to be utterly value-free, without substantive commitments, neutral with regard to the question of human flourishing. This follows from its pure instrumentality; it is a concern with methods regardless of goals, means not ends.” Capitalism fosters an obsessive focus on one’s interests, meaning one’s material well-being, and argues that the pursuit of such is an unqualified moral good; it renders sustained contemplation for no other purpose than to know the truth utterly useless and irrational, and largely impossible. It is preferable, for capitalists, that we do not spend any time shaping or educating our wills, and thus they’re simultaneously weak and tyrannical.
And capitalism thrives on this state of affairs. You walk through a veritable gauntlet of products at several retailers just to pay precisely because capitalists bank on your impulsiveness. Addiction works, too, and serves as a simple permanent-income scheme for companies, who spend millions paying scientists to explain to them exactly how to make their products maximally addictive. Even if you wanted to understand what it is you ought to want, how you ought to desire, the ethos of capitalism suggests that desire is purest and most authentic when unmediated, and thus that more consumptive choices allow you to be more truly yourself. Paralyzing choices populate your interior life, your will is alternately arrested and exploited.
II. Capitalism and the world
And yet, capitalism claims to be the political-economic form that most values free choice. The contradiction between the conditions on the ground and capitalism’s self-image perhaps explains why, when you trace its ideological roots, so much time is spent trying to explain how people have consented or agreed to things they obviously haven’t consented or agreed to. John Locke claimed, for example, that by agreeing that gold and silver are valuable, we agree to the unequal distribution of wealth arising from the accumulation of capital; Thomas Hobbes said that you can still be understood to have consented to that which you were forced to do, even upon pain of death: All it means is that you chose life. Similar hey-buddy-you-asked-for-this arguments arise in cases where there are no other choices really available, as in the payment of poverty wages and unsafe, sexually abusive or exploitative working conditions.
The illusion of consent only emerges, in this context, to conceal the fact that the average person under capitalism does not really control much of his or her own economic activity, much less his or her own destiny. The basic fact of capitalism is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them. In these circumstances, per Hughes, “the goal of the [worker’s] activity is no longer immediately present in the action, nor even partially inherent in it, but rather utterly extrinsic to it, and often quite distant.” Workers sell their labor — which, as Hegel pointed out in his Philosophy of Right, means nothing less than “alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced,” thus “making into another’s property the substance of my being,…my personality” — and in return receive a wage, essentially protection money to pay off other rentiers and commodity dealers for the use of the world.
For workers, paradoxically, the fullest expression of their agency (offered under capitalism, that is) is the full alienation thereof. Huw Beynon put it aptly in his account of Working for Ford: “Workers are paid to obey.” This is all obscure to us now — call it the “mystification” of capitalism — but has been remarkably clear to any number of great historical thinkers. Take Kant, for instance:
“The only qualification required by a citizen,” Kant argued, “(apart, of course, from being an adult male) is that he must be his own master (sui iuris), and must have some property (which can include any skill, trade, fine art or science) to support himself. In cases where he must earn his living from others, he must earn it only by selling that which is his, and not by allowing others to make use of him; for he must in the true sense of the word serve no-one but the commonwealth.” For full participation in a democracy, one must have the security of his own freedom, and wage-laborers simply don’t. Kant’s analysis no longer describes our nominal circumstances, but he remains entirely in the right as to the true nature of the relationship between capital-owner and worker.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, which is why I’ve come today to argue in favor of socialism.
Socialism has a range of expressions, and though it’s mostly argued against (though rarely, if ever argued for) in its twentieth-century historical forms, the effect of any strands I would advocate would be, at least, fourfold: 1) to de-commodify labor, and as many other domains of life as possible; 2) to reduce or eliminate workers’ alienation from their labor, society, and themselves; 3) to reduce or the vast social and political inequality brought about by capitalism; and 4) to diminish or destroy capital’s control over politics, society and the economy.
We already agree, generally, with the de-commodification of certain goods: education, for instance, is largely de-commodified; there is also a major grassroots movement to de-commodify healthcare. All this means is to protect certain domains from total domination by market-based forces. The de-commodification of labor, as my friend C.W. Strand has pointed out, leads to a circumstance in which “one’s livelihood — one’s survival, or economic reproduction — is no longer market-dependent.” Once labor is liberated from the pressures and caprices of the market, Strand also observed, “then the nature of the market itself changes: it ceases being a realm of imperatives, and instead becomes one of opportunities.” It returns a person’s creativity, agency, and time to them; it removes the penalty, or lowers the cost, if you like, of contemplation.
Reducing workers’ alienation from their labor would be a knock-on effect of opening up the market to individual initiatives and creativity; it would also require that we enact legal protections for organized labor, and that the state respect and foster such organization. These processes, along with a more general process of de-commodification across the board, will reduce social and personal alienation by transforming the overwhelming competitive impulse in capitalist society into a cooperative impulse. (It’s worth noting, I think, that is a goal that sounds unreasonably optimistic only because capitalism sells us the worst possible story about ourselves, imagining human nature as inherently greedy, jealous, destructive and anti-social; this is another way in which our own liberation to excellence is foreclosed for us.)
Breaking capital’s stranglehold on politics and society could require any number of legal and regulatory approaches, and could also include the voluntary participation of workers’ organizations and councils in directing the resources of their firms toward collaborative, positive, pro-social projects.
These four fronts are only a rough sketch of the sort of socialism I envision; my purpose here was to debate for its merits rather than to supply particular policy parameters, which can be left to more talented policy-makers than I. But the moral case, too, is important — primary, even. Socialism represents a moral response to an immoral society, and a harsh rebuke to the commandeering of the modern imagination by individualism, cynicism, competition, misanthropy and indifference. With regard to certain practices and industries, socialists may claim that socialist-style approaches will result in greater utility or efficiency, but the greatest recommendation of socialism is that it is its own moral case, and this is nowhere clearer than in contexts where freedom is held among the highest values. “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody,” Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. For Wilde, socialism opened onto an ever more perfect individualism; for me, it opens up the possibility not of living strictly for ourselves, but for living for human excellence, for our own common good.
Thank you very much.