I must admit I find podcasts a useful way to learn. One of my favourites is the Anti-capitalist chronicles by David Harvey (2020), an influential Marxist theorist. I mention this because Prof Harvey has just released a book based on the podcasts, which in time I will review in my guise as literary editor of Prism journal.
I thought a blog about one of the major themes would be interesting. One chapter addresses the question of whether socialism affects freedom. I am particularly interested in the dialectical nature of such propositions as they manifest themselves in contemporary political debate.
Somewhat fortuitously, as I sat down to write this blog, the current Conservative government banned anti-capitalist materials from schools (and frowned upon promoting divisive or victim narratives) (Department for Education, 2020). You cannot help but feel the anti-capitalist materials alluded to are probably socialist in origin; regardless, it certainly helped me to frame this blog.
Hayek (1944), a key influence on Government economic policy, argued that socialism is: “the destruction of the indispensable environment in which the traditional moral values alone can flourish, namely personal freedom”. It is worth noting that this tells us what freedom is not; it does not tell us what it is.
Hayek’s book, The road to serfdom, suggests that planning leads to serfdom: ‘the more the state plans’, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual”. At face value it is true, the more the individual is told what to do the less freedom they have to do it for themselves. Yet, it is a simplistic argument, which assumes individuals act with complete authority except for that exerted by the state. It does not account for the cultural power asserted by those with influence: newspaper proprietors, influencers in the media, large corporates etc. Of course, he was writing at a time when state planning was widespread and socialism increasingly influential amongst policy-makers. It is probably true to say that Hayek, who was teaching at the LSE at the time, was somewhat unfashionable in the 60s.
Harvey argues that right-wing commentators successfully pursue a socialism verse freedom argument and is keen to show that freedom and socialism are entirely compatible. He argues that the left need to take back the language of freedom. Unfortunately, Prof Harvey is not entirely successful. Quoting Marx, he suggests that it is only when material necessity ends that “the true realm of individual freedom could begin”. Like Hayek, this tells us what freedom is not; it does not say what it is.
Harvey creates a freedom/unfreedom dialectic:
So, on the one side, we are building cities and 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 was meant when Marx did make that kind of famous comment that the realm of necessity actually has to be overcome in order for the realm of freedom to be achieved.
It seems to me that passages like these not only represent examples of anti-capitalism that the government wants to ban from schools, but they also represent a divisive victim narrative. Some are unfree because they do not have access to the gleaming cities and big houses that others have. This is a specifically Hegelian approach (Gilles Deleuze, 1983), which is vulnerable to critique because it makes a clear disjuncture between the classes. The problem for the left is the relative complexity of pitching one person’s individual freedom against another. As opposed to the right pitching individual freedom against an impersonal state.
Thankfully, I do not imagine Prof Harvey will be insulted by accusations of Hegelianism. I think his reading of Marx is very dialectical. Nor will he be unduly concerned about accusations of anti-capitalism when those accusations are aimed at a narrative designed to defend the underdog.
Prof Harvey gives some positive definitions in the podcast like freedom is the collective effort to produce life chances open to us all. Marx echoes that definition, especially in his early work; it is hard to imagine anyone disagreeing. His most positive and concrete proposal, however, is that everyone should receive the basics necessities of life as a right. The right to shelter, food, education etc. but it is still not clear what freedom is and that is the point.
The winner in this dialectic will have as vague a definition of freedom as possible. It is useful to construct a vague half imagined sunlit uplands, while being extremely clear about what is currently causing our unfreedom or dissatisfaction. Arguably, the right has an easier argument to make because of its simplicity; unfortunately, reclaiming the language of freedom may not be as easy as it sounds
Department for Education, 2020. Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum. [Online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/plan-your-relationships-sex-and-health-curriculum
[Accessed 21 10 2020].
Gilles Deleuze, 1983. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Paris: Athlone Press.
Harvey, D., 2020. Anti-Capitalist Chronicles. [Online]
Available at: http://davidharvey.org/2018/11/new-podcast-david-harveys-anti-capitalist-chronicles/
[Accessed 21 10 2020].
Hayek, F., 1944. The Road to Serfdom. New York: Routledge.