Thursday, August 5, 2010

Marx, Democracy, Freedom and Equality

It is fashionable in some post-structuralist circles to argue that ideas like freedom, equality and democracy are rotten to the core. This is, of course, not entirely true (take Derrida, for instance, who said that "I can think of nothing less outdated than the classic emancipatory ideal" and who spent the last years of his life talking about a nebulous, unclear "democracy to come").

Nonetheless, some critics of the global capitalist order, even some self-proclaimed Marxists, have wanted to say that the values of freedom, equality and democracy are themselves the mere ideological products of capitalist domination.

I can't go into too much detail here. This is a massive topic. But I'd like to jot down some quick rebuttals to this mistaken view (with emphasis on its incarnation within Marxism in particular).

Marx himself did not think that freedom, equality, and democracy, were, in themselves, nothing but mere capitalist ideology. To be sure, like all facets of life in contemporary societies, capitalism has attempted to appropriate, defang and efface these values. The result is that George Bush (and now Obama) can speak blithely of freedom and democracy at the same moment as they bow to the wishes of corporations, occupy and bomb foreign countries, and impose austerity for working people while making the rich richer. But does this mean that Marxists stand against freedom and democracy as such?

Of course not. Marx argued, as those who've read him are aware, that the problem with liberal capitalist societies wasn't that they had all the wrong values. His claim was that the dominant values (freedom, equality, democratic self-determination) could not be realized under capitalism. Thus, and his text "On the Jewish Question" here is exemplary, his argument was that the self-image of liberal societies was a sham. (His historical writings, particularly the writings on the Paris Commune are excellent here as well). Marx's claim is that such bourgeois societies could not ever deliver on the promises they made without undergoing revolutionary change; their basic structure, according to Marx, was shot through with contradictions.

Why? Why can't capitalist societies realize the values of freedom and equality? Why can't they be democratic?

Marx's answer is remarkably short and succinct: because capitalist societies are societies in which the major means of production are owned and controlled by a small class of capitalists. Production is for the profit (of this class) and not for social need.

Freedom (i.e. being free from exploitation and oppression, being autonomous and self-determining) is not fully possible for all in capitalist societies, because production under capitalism requires the exploitation of the labor of those who do not own any means of production. That is the vast majority of people in contemporary societies. When you hear a rich politician blathering about freedom, ask: whose freedom? Who is made more free by cutting education and spending vast sums on bailouts and war? Whose freedoms are increased by deregulation, privatization and cuts to social spending?

Capitalist societies have unequal social relations built into their very infrastructure. Thus, the capitalist mode of production erodes people's capacities for free, self-determining action in various other ways as well (e.g. by commodifying culture and media, by reducing people to passive consumers rather than active self-determining citizens, by placing them at the whim of crisis-prone financial markets, causing them to grovel and take on alienating jobs in order to subsist, etc.).

As we've seen above, freedom for all classes is not possible in capitalist societies (more freedom for rich capitalists does not mean more freedom for working people). Why is this so? The reason for this unfreedom is closely linked to the fact of systematic inequalities in capitalism. There is vastly unequal ownership and control of productive assets in capitalist societies, and as a result, working people (those who own no means of production) are unfree. Because of unequal, private ownership of the means of production, ordinary people have no say in big economic decisions and investments that have massive effects on their lives and well-being. Because of unequal concentration of productive wealth, electoral institutions and representatives are constantly under the tutelage of moneyed interests. Inequality and unfreedom are inextricably linked. Equality and freedom are inextricably linked.

Democracy is not far from the discussion here at all. Democracy is the realization of freedom and equality: all have an equal say, an equal voice, in the major social decisions that determine the conditions in which they live their lives. The interests of all are owed equal concern in such decisions: that is what democracy is about.

But capitalism is necessarily and profoundly undemocratic.

Market relations endow consumers only with freedom of exit (i.e. the freedom not to buy something), but no freedom of voice to determine how things are produced. Capitalism, as we saw above, concentrates decision-making and control of production in the hands of a small, gilded elite. Markets operate on the basis of "effective demand" not human needs. Moreover, markets encourage decision making on the basis of unreflective, lowly (ideological) consumer "preferences", rather than reflective principles about which we deliberate and discuss amongst one another. Capitalism allows millions to suffer neglect, disease, poverty and other social ills that erode their capacity to be effective participants in self-government. Capitalism isolates us, divides us, and alienates us from fellow human beings, thus damaging our capacity to be co-legislators in the production of our collective social life. Capitalism encourages and relies upon the anti-democratic destruction caused by racism, sexism and other modes of oppression.

Socialists fight for real democracy (socialist democracy, democracy-from-below, etc.) against the necessarily ineffective set of electoral institutions masquerading as "democratic" in contemporary capitalist societies.

Equality, freedom and democracy, then, are inextricably linked. Their meaning was borne out of struggle against exploitation and oppression. Their practical import has yet to be truly tested. They must be wrested from the control of bourgeois ideologists in the media and political establishment. The gap between these values and our own society is staggering; they should be the basis for struggle for below, not the window-dressing for exploitation, neocolonial oppression and domination worldwide.

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