by Chaz Bufe
(This essay will appear in the author’s upcoming Provocations: Don’t Call Them Libertarians, AA Lies, and other incitements, which is scheduled for October 2014.)
Leaving this dismal situation behind for a moment, let’s consider a very important aspect of freedom that is virtually never mentioned in the United States: what Emma Goldman called “the freedom to,” that is, the access to the resources necessary to making the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of travel, etc.) meaningful—to put this another way, access to the means necessary to the freedom to act.
Without this “positive” freedom, freedom from restraint becomes nearly meaningless. As an extreme example, freedom of the press is a mockery to someone who is starving to death. But let’s consider a less extreme example: the situation of the majority in the present-day United States. The top 1% of the population owns considerably more of the national wealth (40%) than the bottom 90% of the population combined (30%, with most of that concentrated toward the top); the top 10% own more than twice as much as the bottom 90% (70% versus 30%); and the bottom 50% own almost nothing—under 10% of the wealth, with almost all of it concentrated in static assets such as cars and heavily mortgaged houses.
As should be blindingly obvious, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are much more real for the rich than for the rest of us. If the rich have something to say and want to make use of freedom of the press, they can simply go out and buy newspapers, publishing companies, radio stations, TV stations, even TV networks and cable and satellite providers. The rest of us, if we have something to say, are reduced to publishing xeroxed ‘zines and pamphlets, putting low-wattage “pirate” radio stations on the air (while running the risk of being fined, having our equipment confiscated, and just possibly going to jail), putting up blogs and web sites, producing cable-access TV shows seen by a minuscule number of viewers, and, if we’re willing to make major economic sacrifices, publishing small amounts of paperback books which we’ll have trouble distributing. (Small publishers are at a huge competitive disadvantage vis a vis the few huge corporations that dominate the publishing field.)
Then, if the corporate elite feel the slightest bit threatened, they’ll have no compunction about suppressing the independent press—and, indeed, anyone who dares to publicly disagree with the elite’s political agenda—via their bought-and-paid-for government. And, to add insult to injury, the corporate mass media will be howling for the blood of the accursed dissenters, blathering tired non sequiturs about “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” and the like to stampede the herd.
To put this another way, lack of positive freedom, lack of equal access to resources, makes a mockery of all of the freedoms from restraint—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of travel, etc.—because unequal access to resources is itself a tremendous restraint. If freedom is to be real, equal freedom—in both its positive (access to resources) and negative (freedom from restraint) aspects—is mandatory. Absolute freedom is impossible (though the rich enjoy something close to it, at everyone else’s expense); the best that we can hope for is equal freedom.
The Freedom of The Rich
The foregoing applies to the “pursuit of happiness” as well. The rich are much freer than the rest of us in that area, too; in fact they’re freer in virtually all areas of life. They’re far freer not only to exercise their civil liberties, but to travel, to send their kids to the best schools, to live where and how they choose, buy any consumer goods they want, eat the best, most expensive foods, etc., etc. And they have much more time to do all these things than the rest of us, because they do not have to work. Some do, but it’s a matter of choice for them.
The rich are also very nearly free to flout the law. William F. Buckley provided a flamboyant example of this a number of years ago when he sailed his yacht outside U.S. territorial waters so that he could smoke pot without fear of the authorities, and then bragged about it on his TV show.
In day-to-day life, the rich are much less likely than the rest of us ever to be bothered by the police, as cops are always much more reluctant to kick in the doors of the wealthy than they are the doors of those who do useful work. And, in those rare instances in which the rich are charged with crimes, they can hire “expert witnesses” and private investigators, and they can hire the best defense lawyers to get them off, sometimes on what seem like open-and-shut murder charges. (In contrast, the poor often have to rely on overworked public defenders who normally plea bargain cases9; as a result, a large number of poor people are convicted of, or plead guilty to, crimes of which they’re innocent.)
The rich enjoy an extraordinary degree of freedom at everyone else’s expense. There is no way around this, given that freedom depends on access to resources, that the world has finite resources, and that, though these resources are great, they’re almost entirely in the hands of the rich.
The “Freedom” of Those Who Work
For the rest of us, things are very different than for the rich. Most of us have very little control over our daily lives. We’re forced to work long, numbing hours, often at jobs we hate, just to pay the bills. With the real unemployment rate around 15% (counting “discouraged workers”—those who, often after months or years, have given up trying to find work—and the “underemployed”), those of us who work for a living have a powerful incentive to continue working, even at jobs we despise. The fear of homelessness and destitution is ever lurking in the background, with millions upon millions of us one paycheck away from being out on the street.
At work, we have virtually no control over our lives—freedom is almost totally absent from a good third of our waking hours on work days. On the job, we’re often subject to a myriad of idiotic rules (even as to when and how often we can go to the restroom); we usually have no say in the decisions about what we produce; we usually have no say, either, on how we produce things; we have very little control over our pay, and because of the fear of unemployment and the pathetic state of the U.S. unions we often have to take insultingly low wages; we’re often forced to work overtime (and sometimes cheated of overtime pay); and we’re often subjected to humiliating intrusions into our private lives (especially drug tests and, sometimes, forced participation in 12-step religious-indoctrination programs under the guise of “treatment”).
The near-total lack of control of most Americans over their work lives can be seen in the fact that productivity has been steadily rising since World War II (1% to 3% per year, according to Juliet Schor’s excellent book, The Overworked American), while the average number of hours worked per year in the U.S. is among the highest in the industrialized world, and median wages (in constant dollars) have actually fallen approximately 12% since 2001.
To make matters worse, taxes fall most heavily on those who work for a living. Average taxpayers now pay over one-third of their wages as taxes, while many of the rich pay far lower taxes or, in some cases, no taxes at all thanks to their ability to take advantage of loopholes and dodges (overseas accounts, the very low taxes on capital gains income, etc.). The end result is that there is a steadily widening gap between the rich and the rest of us,10 and that the day to day lives of a good majority of Americans are becoming less and less free: our time is being eaten up by one of the industrialized world’s longest work weeks (when we’re fortunate enough to have jobs); we have fewer and fewer resources with which to exercise our scant “negative” freedoms; and, indeed, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to make choices in any aspect of our lives.
To reiterate: lack of resources is making us less and less free. If we had even the most minimal control of our work lives and the products of our labor, there’s no way that we would put up with such appalling realities.11
There’s no lack of bought-and-paid-for intellectuals and pundits to justify this state of affairs, and to a great extent they’ve succeeded in doing so. They’ve even (with plentiful help from the miseducation system, corporate media, and patriarchal religions) managed to convince a good majority of Americans that the status quo is “freedom.”
One of their main, and particularly grotesque, arguments is that private property in general and capitalism in particular (and the extreme inequality in access to resources that comes with it) are necessary to freedom. We’ve already seen that unequal access to resources (that is, lack of positive freedom) makes a mockery of civil liberties and that it destroys freedom in day to day life. But let’s take a closer look at private property and capitalism.
In the first place, private property consists largely of land and natural resources. Who created these? No one. So why should only a few benefit from them? The other part of what makes up private property is primarily the product of the collective labor of hundreds of generations: houses, factories, workshops, mines, mills, machines, railways, airports, dams, power plants—in sum, everything produced by the members of dead-and-gone generations. Again, why should only a few—especially a few who by and large do no useful work—be the primary beneficiaries of this massive amount of collective labor?
To say that they inherited their wealth and that it’s therefore rightfully theirs is to say no more than that the sons and daughters of those who have unfairly benefitted should also unfairly benefit. And that original unfair benefit was based on land grabs, violence, the enslavement of others, the swindling of others, the suppression of competition, and other forms of low cunning and thuggery. Should such behaviors be rewarded in perpetuity?
But what of “self-made men”? In the first place, a majority of wealth is inherited rather than “made.” In the second place, “self-made men” benefitted tremendously from the labor of past generations. And third, if you look closely you’ll find that most “self-made men” had a head start on the rest of us—they came from the upper income strata. And fourth, most of these individuals’ success comes not from innovative genius and hard work (though some of the rich are innovative and do work hard), but from taking advantage of the work of others. Bill Gates, the richest man on Earth, is a good example of this. Gates succeeded largely by recognizing and buying the intellectual products of others on the cheap (e.g., DOS), and through monopolistic practices, exploitation of labor (e.g., the “permatemps” who often work for years at Microsoft, but with no job security and no benefits), and the ruthless suppression of competition (e.g., Netscape).12 Linus Torvald, the inventor of Linux, has arguably made a greater contribution to computing than Gates, but we all know which of the two is incredibly wealthy. Gates aim was always to make money; Torvalds made Linux a public domain operating system. (Today it’s a backbone of the Internet; most servers run Linux.)
In the end, “self-made men” not only normally have an economic head start on the rest of us, but they also normally make their money by taking advantage of the work and talents of others; and so they’re no more deserving of great wealth than the parasites (such as the Koch brothers) who inherit it.
Advocates of Freedom
Many groups and political tendencies are concerned with civil liberties, with freedom from restraint. The most prominent are left liberals (social democrats) and the so-called libertarians. Both have the same defect: their vision of liberty is incomplete. Liberals are often at least dimly aware of the necessity of resources to the achievement of freedom, but they do not draw the logical conclusions from this. Instead of attempting to rid the world of undeserved privilege, they simply seek to mitigate the worst abuses of capitalism via governmental means. Even at best, as in the Scandinavian countries, such an approach leaves a large majority of the people with limited access to resources (in comparison with the rich) and saddles them with an intrusive government bureaucracy.
The other group concerned with civil liberties, the so-called libertarians, are entirely blind to the relationship of resources to freedom. In fact, they glorify the mechanism that denies equal positive freedom to all: capitalism. (The stilted, bloated novels by the literarily challenged cult figure Ayn Rand provide good examples of this.) In recent years, this group’s political party has even retreated from its earlier calls for the abolition of the state (so as to bring on the “paradise” of unfettered, cutthroat capitalism), and now wants to retain the police and military functions of the state, while eliminating its social welfare functions (further widening the already huge gap between the freedoms of the rich and the poor). This is in apparent recognition of the fact that capitalism requires institutionalized violence to maintain itself,13 that the state is a convenient form of such violence, and that the state has historically been a faithful servant of the rich. In sum, the “libertarians” are not concerned about (and in fact are antagonistic to) the freedom of the vast majority; the only freedom they’re interested in is that of capitalists. They confuse freedom of capital with human freedom, and if push ever comes to shove, one knows in advance which side they’ll come down on—they’ll fight to the death to preserve capitalism and to prevent real, full freedom from ever taking root.
But what about equal freedom? What about positive freedom (equal access to resources)? Doesn’t anyone advocate these things?
Only two political tendencies are concerned with achievement of equal positive freedom. The first is marxism. However, for the most part marxists conceive of freedom only as positive freedom, that is, only as access to resources, and, routinely violated paper guarantees aside, they’re by and large indifferent or actively hostile (invariably so once in power) to the negative freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To make matters worse, once in power marxists don’t even deliver on the promise of positive freedom (just as their capitalist counterparts don’t deliver on the promise of the negative freedoms). Instead, they become, to use Milovan Djilas’s term, “the new class,” that is, the new privileged class. So, under marxism freedom in both its negative and positive senses is illusory.
Anarchists14 alone insist on both equal positive and equal negative freedom, that is equal access to resources and equal freedom from restraint, limited only by the similar freedom of others. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to consider this matter in any detail, but it’s well worth noting that anarchists have considered these things at length and have written a number of very useful books on how to achieve real freedom.17
For the vast majority of us, American “freedom” consists of unremitting regimentation at school and work; unremitting indoctrination from the miseducation system, corporate media, and authoritarian religions; working at jobs we often loathe; having no control over our work lives (our pay, work hours, working conditions, what we produce, how we produce it); stress from being overworked, underpaid, and in constant fear of job loss and homelessness; humiliating intrusions into our private lives by employers and the government (goaded on by religious zealots); lack of the time necessary to taking real advantage of the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.); and lack of the resources necessary to making real choices in virtually all other areas of life (schools, housing, transportation, travel . . . ).
And, in compensation for all this, we have the “freedom” to enter the voting booth every two years to vote for the millionaires who will become our new masters.
9. A common, sleazy prosecutorial practice is to pile baseless or nearly baseless charges on a defendant (who doesn’t have the resources to fight all the charges) to coerce the defendant into pleading guilty to one or two of the charges. As a result many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.
10. At the time Ronald Reagan took office, the top 1% of the population owned approximately 30% of the national wealth. Since then there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom and middle to the top economic strata, with the wealth of the top 1% increasing over the past quarter century by more than the combined worth of the bottom 50%. To put this another way, the extremely wealthy are becoming far wealthier, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, and the already wretched condition of the poor is becoming ever worse.
11. Self-employment is a largely illusory alternative. Most self-employment attempts fail, due in large part to inadequate capitalization (that is, lack of economic resources); the self-employed often work more hours than those employed by others; they often work seven days a week; and cash flow (that is, lack of steady income) is a constant nightmare for many, probably most, self-employed people.
12. Microsoft attempted to destroy Netscape by integrating Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, into the Windows operating system. (At the time, Netscape’s flagship product was its web browser.) There was no logical reason to do this, unless one counts attempting to destroy a rival as “logical.”
13. Earlier “Libertarian” theorists, such as Murray Rothbard, were well aware of capitalism’s need for institutionalized violence. Rothbard’s solution, in the absence of the state, was the creation of private police forces and private prisons. 14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.
14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.
15. To list only a few: Looking Forward, by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel; Moving Forward, by Michael Albert; What Is Anarchism?, by Alexander Berkman; Remaking Society, by Murray Bookchin; Redefining Revolution, by Cornelius Castoriadis; The Anarchist Collectives, by Sam Dolgoff; Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin; Workers’ Councils, by Anton Pannekoek; Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, by José Peirats; Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, by Rudolf Rocker; Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward.