Sunday, 29 January 2012
Thursday, 26 January 2012
Freedom is valuable. To be a slave, to be imprisoned, to be constrained by social convention or trapped by your own past, to be unfree in any of a wide range of other more or less subtle ways, is terrible. The felt demand for freedom can be transformative and overwhelming. The former slave Frederick Douglass writes:
I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition which tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trumpet of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
So, we should ask: What is the relation between capitalism and freedom? This is a pressing question for us, because if capitalism realizes this ‘beautiful, needful thing’, that’s a very strong ethical argument in its favour. And if it does not – if it leaves us without freedom or even enslaves us – that’s a very strong ethical argument against it.
We might hope to answer this question by saying what freedom is, and then investigating whether capitalism provides it. But it isn’t clear what freedom is. Is poverty lack of freedom, for example? For Amartya Sen, freedom is the means, opportunities, and capacities to achieve central human ways of being and doing, from getting enough to eat, to appearing in public without threat or shame, to having a voice in communal decision-making. To be poor is to lack some or all of these, and poverty is therefore lack of freedom. But Friedrich Hayek distinguishes between freedom and the powers needed to make use of it. For Hayek, poor people are just as free as rich ones, even though they can do less with their freedom. Someone who will have to sleep rough tonight, because she doesn’t have money or friends, either lacks the freedom to sleep warm and safe, or is free but without means to do so.
We can’t resolve this dispute by discovering the real or original meaning of the word ‘freedom’. It doesn’t have a real meaning, just multiple uses, and its original uses are no guide to its current ones. We don’t discover anything about the Pope’s views on contraception by noting that one root meaning of ‘catholic’ is ‘universal’.
Instead, we should recognise that ‘freedom’ means many different things, ask which of them is most valuable, and see whether capitalism realizes these most valuable freedoms. This chapter considers the value of three different regimes of freedom in relation to capitalism.
2.1 Hayek’s Regime of Liberty
Hayek argues that the most valuable freedom is liberty, which is just not being coerced. Coercion is the use of power, by some other human being, to make you act on their will rather than your own. The forces of circumstance and nature, including your own nature, are not coercion. So, liberty is not actually getting what you want. You can freely try and fail through mere bad luck. It’s not self-command. You can be free but weak-willed or confused. Contra Sen, it’s not power or wealth or capacity. You can be free without the internal or external means to get what you want. It’s not having a range of possibilities to choose between. In Hayek’s example, the climber who sees only one way of getting off the mountain alive is free, even though she has only one path into the future. It’s not political freedom, having a say in communal decision-making. You can have liberty in a dictatorship. (We’ll return to this last point in a later chapter.)
Hayek’s vision of the best form of life is a regime of liberty in which everyone has the status of free person, not slave. Each person is a protected member of the community with the rights gained by Roman slaves at manumission: immunity from arbitrary arrest, the right to work at whatever she desires, the right to movement according to her own choice, and the right to own property. This status is a private sphere of uncoerced action defined by the State’s public rule-governed use of coercion. Property, for example, is a sphere of rights to use things, created and defended by State-mandated contracts, courts, and force. This form of life is the life of individuals striving against circumstance and nature to get what they want, by their own efforts and by uncoerced agreement with others. Their striving doesn’t always succeed, but they succeed or fail as free people.
This is an idealized picture of capitalism: Hayekian liberty defended by a rule-governed State.
There is a common argument that capitalism is freedom because it’s human nature, and non-capitalism is interference with that nature. Non-capitalist forms of life are therefore thought to need special justification, where capitalism doesn’t. It’s thought to be the human default, and to exert a gravitational pull which distorts attempts at other ways of organizing ourselves. That argument is a mistake, and Hayek doesn’t make it.
First, if any human social form is natural, it’s anarchy. For most of the time there have been humans, we lived in small, nomadic, egalitarian bands connected by kinship and friendship. We divided labour by gender and age. We had no property except a few personal items and no trade except gift-exchange. We had no formal authorities or institutional centres of power. We organized our collective lives by negotiation, social pressure, temporary enthusiasm for individual initiatives, and shared ritual. That’s how humans lived for perhaps 90,000 years before some of us took up agriculture sometime around 10,000 BCE.
Second, slavery is commonplace in more recent human history. Every one of us is descended both from slaves and from slave-holders.
For both reasons, Hayek’s liberty is a recent and incomplete achievement, not a default. Both anarchy and slavery are centres of gravity in human nature which pull away from it. Hayek know this, and is clear that capitalist liberty depends on State interference and limitation of liberty. The private sphere is defined and sustained by State action, and it’s no accident that capitalism and the modern nation-state arise together in recent history.
2.2 The Value of Freedoms
But why think that liberty is worth having? We might say that it’s valuable just in itself, but that would have the strange consequence that it would be equally valuable for creatures who could do nothing with it. Dandelions pursue sunlight and water, but have no use for property, so liberty is of no value to them. Liberty must therefore be valuable for what it does to us, not just what it is. It’s beautiful and needful for humans.
This is how Hayek defends the value of liberty: it’s needed to live and make progress in a world we don’t fully understand. If we knew everything about human nature, society, and the future, we’d have no need for liberty, because we could see what would be best to do. But without such perfect knowledge we have to rely on experimentation. Different individuals make different uses of their liberty to try out various possibilities; the failures are abandoned or die off; the successes grow and are copied. Gradually, we develop a form of life, a set of habits and institutions, which expresses what we’ve learned about how to survive in our circumstances. Trial and error in practice comes first. Theory incompletely follows. The great mistake of forms of life which don’t provide liberty is their quixotic attempt to theorise and plan for the unknown future instead of adapt to it by multiple experiment. In the twentieth century, liberal societies displayed their superiority to centrally-planned ones by outliving them, and they did so by trying out many plans at once, rather than applying one five-year plan from the top down.
If liberty is valuable, its value is as a means to the gradual progress of knowledge in practice about how to live.
2.3 The Regime of Real Possibility
That means that if some other freedom creates more progress than liberty does, we ought to adopt it instead. Liberty is the absence of coercion, not the actual opportunity or means to do what you want, so you could have liberty and still not be able to do it. You might want to experiment with self-sufficient communal living, but be unable to make the attempt because there’s no free land, and your group lacks the money to buy it. You might want to experiment with the potential of your musical talent, but have to work long tiring shifts to pay rent. You might have an idea for greener transport, but have no capital to invest in developing it. An increase in opportunities, by a distribution of means to take them, would therefore make more experiments possible. If the value of liberty is its necessity for experiment, then real possibility, based in the wider distribution of means like money, is more valuable. So, we should redistribute wealth to maximise the number and range of experiments. If everyone has some possibility of trying new things, more experiments will be made than if only a few have it.
But some people pursue their artistic talent while working long tiring shifts.
Of course, but how many more would be able to pursue their talent without that necessity? How much more would those who struggled on have been able to do without it? The argument isn’t that progress is impossible without these extra possibilities, it’s that we’d get more progress with them than without.
But redistributing wealth just moves opportunity from some to others. It doesn’t create more opportunity.
That would be true if the number and range of experiments were proportional only to the means available, and had nothing to do with the number of people they’re distributed across. But why think that?
A rich person – Paris Hilton, say – has the means to pursue more experiments than she’ll ever imagine, desire, or have time for. Transferring some of her money to the musician, communards and inventor increases the number of experiments carried out, and therefore creates more possibilities for progress.
Neither is the range of different experiments proportional only to the means available. If all the means are concentrated in one class or group, their similarities and mutual emulation will limit what’s tried to a narrow range of possibilities. Transferring some of Paris Hilton’s money to someone very unlike her increases the range of experiments attempted.
But how do we know that the people we transfer means to will make good use of their new possibilities?
We don’t. But we don’t know that about the few who have the means now, either.
This regime of real possibility, created by distribution of means to experiment, could happen under capitalism. One form of it is universal basic income: every adult citizen gets a guaranteed income to use as she chooses, funded from taxation, so higher earners will pay more in tax than they get from the UBI, but everyone will have some means for experiment. But my brief here is not to make detailed policy proposals, it’s to argue that the demand for freedom, if based on the good of progress it produces, is a demand for real possibility not just liberty. My argument is the progressive effect of everyone really being free to pursue her own experiments. Its result is a freedom-based demand for redistribution of means, and therefore of possibilities, rather than an egalitarian demand.
But this destroys autonomy and independence. It turns free strivers into slavish clients of the redistributive State.
2.3 The Regime of Flourishing
This last criticism is a move from a defence of liberty out of what it does for us to a defence out of what it does to us. Lack of liberty is supposed to weaken and corrupt. Liberty is supposed to cultivate an admirable independence. Frederick Douglass would have agreed that slavery corrupts. The condition of subordination creates fear, cringing self-abjection, self-hatred, retreat into alcoholism and other forms of inner escape, and reactive violence, often against oneself or other subordinates. It destroys important elements of human flourishing, including self-love, self-command, and the ability to look other people in the eye and stand with them, or up to them, as an equal.
Manumission from slavery to liberty is a great good in that it removes these sources of corruption, but it doesn’t remove all sources of corruption. Advertising distorts desire the way fat and salt distorts appetite. Bad education misshapes our capacities of self-understanding and self-command. The examples of wealth-as-success offered to us by capitalism misdirect our efforts and admiration. There are many ways a life can go badly in a regime of liberty. So, if the argument for liberty is that it removes some sources of corruption, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which remove other sources. If the argument for liberty is that it makes us better, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which make us better still.
The conditions of flourishing, of living fully and well as a human being, are far more complex and demanding than just being left alone in a private sphere. They may include the education of desire, perception, and self-understanding; the resources to support oneself without having to become menial and cringing; mutually-transformative friendship.
We’ll return to the nature and conditions of flourishing in later chapters. For the moment, the moral to draw is that it is not obvious that capitalism’s regime of liberty is best for us. If we care about what freedoms do for us and to us, we need to pursue more and different freedoms than Hayek’s liberty.
Saturday, 21 January 2012
Thursday, 19 January 2012
[Proper introduction needed: perhaps a few vignettes of life in capitalism, including bourgeois professional, factory worker in China; core and periphery… I need to think more about this.]
Capitalism as an Ethical Problem: both parts of that title need to be explained.
Capitalism, like socialism or fascism, is a contested term. James Fulcher defines it as ‘essentially the investment of money in the expectation of making a profit’. The Encyclopedia Britannica, as an ‘economic system, dominant in the Western world since the breakup of feudalism, in which most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets’. Deirdre McCloskey, as ‘private property and free labour without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus’. There’s no interesting argument to be had about which is the ‘real meaning’ of the term: words have uses, not real meanings.
I shall use capitalism as the name of a form of life: our current global form, which deeply shapes the development, experiences, and possibilities of all living humans. It’s the result of a revolutionary change which happened over the last few hundred years. That ‘great transformation’ was perhaps the largest change in human life since the shift from hunting, gathering and gardening to agriculture and cities.
This recent revolution was the takeover of more and more of human life by markets: by individual ownership, exchange in pursuit of profit, and their supporting social and political institutions. The takeover began in the seventeenth century, and increased rapidly from around 1800. Industrial capitalism developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and our global finance capitalism in the second half of the twentieth.
A critic interrupts: Capitalism isn’t a recent transformation, capitalism is natural. Humans always rationally pursue profit or self-interest, and have an innate tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ for advantage. The rise of modern capitalism was the freeing of that nature from the chains of feudal church, state, and culture—from sumptuary laws, the prohibition of usury, and the valorisation of holy poverty—leading to increased trade, accumulation, investment, and innovation. It was growth, not revolution. (This critical voice will continue to interrupt, in italics, throughout.)
That’s a widely held view, and not a stupid one, but it’s mistaken. One running theme of this book will be the historical particularity of capitalism and the range of humanly possible alternatives to it. For now, I’ll point out three major qualitative changes involved in the move to capitalism. I’m not claiming that self-interest and trade are not natural. They may well be, and capitalism must somehow connect with our natures or it wouldn’t be possible for us. But my argument here is that self-interest and trade don’t by themselves add up to our current capitalist form of life.
The first change is in how the relation of self to society is understood: the transition to capitalism is a move from understanding the basic social tie as blood to understanding it as bargain. In non-capitalist forms of life, people relate to one another and organise their shared lives in a variety of ways, but centrally by natural and artificial kinship: mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters; clans and marriages; shared ancestors. In capitalism, people understand and direct many of their relations as voluntary agreements between formal equals. Social roles aren’t assigned to the fitting person with a particular blood relationship, but are ‘careers open to talent’. In theory at least, capacity not descent is what matters.
Thomas Hobbes helped to define this understanding of social relations by recasting what a monarch is. For many seventeenth-century royalists, Charles II was the unique bearer of a sacred property—he was the king because of who he in particular was, the heir of the previous king. For Hobbes, Charles Stuart is no-one special unless we—individuals with our own powers and rights to use them to pursue our desires—make him so. Each of us offers the others a self-interested bargain: I’ll obey the king if you do too. This bargain is worth making because everyone’s obedience is better for me than everyone’s freedom (every else’s obedience and my freedom would be even better, but no-one’s going to agree to that). Hobbes’s starting place is what’s important here: society is a bargain between presocial individuals, and forward-looking agreement rather than history is what’s important in its organisation.
So, in capitalism, the roles available to us are temporary contracts which might be filled by any particular person, rather than identities which belong to us because of who and what we in particular are—manager, employee, or customer, rather than King Charles II, the knight Sir Francis Godolphin, or the serfs Mary and John.
Of course, kinship hasn’t disappeared as an organising principle, but its powers are changed and constrained by the market in contracted roles. James Murdoch’s role has something to do with being the son of Rupert Murdoch, but he can be fired and replaced.
The second change is in property, that is rights over things, and especially over things needed for survival. In non-capitalist forms of life, non-human nature is occupied and managed by groups who make decisions by some combination of tradition, hierarchy, and democracy. In capitalism, land is owned by an individual (often a legal individual, a corporation, not a single human being). The shift to capitalism involves both the concentration of rights which had been distributed, and the creation of a new right. Feudal serfs had a customary or common law right to derive a livelihood from the fields and forests they occupied; feudal lords had a right to a share of their crops. Neither had a right to transfer those rights, nor to change how the fields and forests were used and lived in. Capitalist land-owners have formal legal rights not only to do all of these things, but also to sell. The shift to capitalism recasts nature as land, that is as a commodity as well as a place and resource: it puts nature into a market.
The history of enclosure in England is one example of this shift. In the hundred years from the mid-eighteenth century, common land was frequently transferred into private ownership by acts of parliament. This was a move from shared local rights to collect firewood, cut turf, graze livestock, mow hay, and other particular activities, to individual ownership rights to use, derive profit, transform, and especially to sell. Enclosure involved considerable violence, and it made many new landowners, who were often the old aristocrats, rich. More importantly, it helped to create an urban working class. Many who could no longer make a living as farmers, foragers and gardeners went to the city to try to make a living by selling all they had left: themselves, the activity of their bodies and minds, also now become a commodity as labour.
In non-capitalist forms of life, there is no individual ownership of the strong kind we have in capitalism. I’m not making the obviously false claim that outside capitalism, no individual or group holds onto particular objects, occupies particular spaces, or excludes others from them. I am saying that the individual owner in whom all the rights of property including the right to sell are fixed, and who can own land and labour amongst other commodities, is a product of capitalism.
Nor am I saying that individual ownership is the only way in which people in capitalism have rights over things. Other forms of use and occupation survive, just as non-bargain forms of social relation do, and often in the same place: families use and occupy intimate spaces without needing always to make ownership claims against one another, even though they may make strong claims to monopolise the use of particular objects (my armchair) and territory (my bedroom). I am saying that the creation and expansion of individual ownership is a revolutionary change in how humans live.
The third change is in the production and distribution of goods, in three ways. First, why are goods made? In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made for a variety of reasons: need, pleasure, ritual, status, gift-giving. In capitalism, goods are made in the hope of profitable exchange. The exchange is expected to be profitable because of all those other reasons why people might want or need goods, but goods are made for exchange and not directly for those other reasons. That shapes what is made, how it’s made, and who gets it.
Second, how are goods made? Groups normally make goods in both the capitalist and the non-capitalist case, but they’re different kinds of group. In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made by groups including families, villages, and guilds, using organising strategies including the demands of friendship and care, reciprocity, the threat of mockery and social disapproval, the threat of violence, and gender-based divisions of labour. In capitalism, the preeminent group form is the bureaucratic corporation or firm: a formal, rule-governed hierarchy with horizontal and vertical division of labour (horizontal in that each person does only some small part of the group task; vertical in that the head-work of management is divided from the hand-work of labour). This firm exists in a market for which it produces, and in which it makes exchanges in pursuit of profit.
Third, how are goods distributed? In non-capitalist forms of life, the answer is again various: who gets what is a matter of traditional portions, or need, or centralised redistribution, or giving and returning favours, or expression of social approval and disapproval, or violent appropriation. In capitalism, access to goods is decided by ability to pay. Paying or bartering for goods in markets is an option available in many non-capitalist forms of life, but in capitalism, markets are compulsory, not optional. There’s no other way to get much of what I need or want than to buy it.
[Need an example here: competitive feasting as a form of distribution? potlatch?]
The capitalist revolution is incomplete, and perhaps can’t be complete. The creatures on the other side of the great transformation were still humans, and human universals like kinship continue across the boundary, though in changed forms and context. But the three major changes I’ve sketched are enough to reject the claim that capitalism is natural: our capitalist form of life is recent, revolutionary, and only one of the ways humans have lived and might live again.
1.2 …as an Ethical Problem
This book is about capitalism as an ethical problem. Any form of life raises the question, is this the best way to live?, because it shapes us. What we can do and be, individually and collectively, depends on the form of life we find ourselves in, which we didn’t create, but which is not merely a fact of nature we have to deal with. We make our current form of life together, in the face of and with the collaboration of human and non-human nature, we have made other forms of life in the past, and we could make another form in the future. We have alternatives, so as reasonable people we can and should think about capitalism in the context of those alternatives.
But how are we to think about them? If we’re so shaped by our form of life, we can’t get to an objective position outside it to judge it.
We’ll attempt a particular kind of thinking, which philosophers and others have taken up at least since Socrates. We’ll address current human predicaments by working from the particular and local towards the fundamental and general. We’ll go from particular experiences of lack of freedoms to the nature and value of freedom. We’ll use contrasts between capitalist and other kinds of work to make judgements about the value of work. The answer to my critic is that we won’t try to step up to the position of the outside judge. Our project is critical from multiple human perspectives, not from an imaginary godlike perspective.
Our topics are some ethically problematic and philosophically interesting features of capitalism as a form of life: freedom, ownership, individuals, opulence, making a living [and justice?]. We’ll also consider utopianism as one way of responding to these features. These topics are different angles on one thing, not independent, but we need to abstract if we’re to get clear about the complex whole.
As mentioned below, I’m going to write the first draft of a book out of my teaching this term. The working title is Capitalism as an Ethical Problem, and it’s intended as a piece of popular, but not dumbed down, practical philosophy. My plan is to post a draft chapter every week – that’s ambitious, and it means that they’ll often be scrappy, but I hope that the tight, repeated deadlines will work against my tendency to polish endlessly.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012
I’m teaching two related courses this term: PPR309 Practical Philosophy: Capitalism as an Ethical Problem (final-year undergraduate) and PPR459 Ethics & Governance (MA). Links go to module guides. I plan to write the first draft of a book about capitalism out of this teaching, and will post draft chapters here as I go.
Thursday, 12 January 2012
1. There is no such thing as responsibility. That is, there is no thing, responsibility, out there in the world for us to discover or describe or respond to. Holding responsible is a thing humans do: an institution or practice. And we can do it in many different ways, or, perhaps, we could choose not to do it at all.
2. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to choose between different practices of holding responsible. Norms for those practices include causality and human flourishing, which set limits on the kinds of practices we ought to adopt, and ground reasons for and against particular practices.
3. Causality, unlike responsibility, is out there in the world. Some things really do cause other things, in the sense that but for the first, the second would not exist or have happened. To hold someone responsible is normally to assert causation, and a demonstration of lack of causation is a good criticism of an attempt to hold responsible. This means, for example, that a good reason against holding a witch responsible for an illness is that the alleged witch did not, in fact, cause the illness.
4. Human flourishing is also out there in the world. I can remain neutral here about what exactly flourishing is, and insist only that – obviously – some people’s lives really go better than others’ do, regardless of what we choose to say or do about it. Flourishing is normative for our practices of holding responsible in the straightforward consequentialist sense that the right practice is the one which best promotes flourishing. This means, for example, that the current punitive practice of the UK and US should be abandoned because of its disastrous results. It’s not that people in prison aren’t really responsible for what they did: there’s no such thing as being really responsible, only a practice of holding responsible. Rather, holding mostly poor, wounded, badly educated people responsible in a way which legitimates locking them up for long periods of time is bad for those people, and not good for the rest of us. So we should stop it.