Saturday, July 27, 2019

Negative for Freedom (2019)

Book Review from the July 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rob Larson: Capitalism vs. Freedom. Zero Books £14.99.

There is a standard distinction between two kinds of freedom. Negative freedom (‘freedom from’) involves a person being able to act without others having the power to coerce them, while positive freedom (‘freedom to’) is about what a person is actually free to do. Here, confronting supporters of capitalism (especially Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek) who see free-market capitalism as the best guarantee of freedom, in particular the negative type, Rob Larson claims that capitalism cannot deliver either kind of freedom. His arguments and examples apply particularly to the US, but have wider validity. His previous book Bleakonomics was reviewed in the March 2013 Socialist Standard.

He begins by considering freedom to buy and to work, with people supposedly free to choose what job to do and which goods and services to purchase. But this is really very limited, since in practice concentration of power makes markets gradually less competitive over time. The US has two main ‘merchant monopolists’, Amazon and Wal-Mart. Amazon, for instance, extracted better terms from publishers by not recommending their books and so cutting their sales. Technology giants conspired to keep down the wages of software engineers. The class division of capitalism is an impediment to real freedom, as the employing class have far more power and freedom than the workers.

Larson then moves on to looking at freedom of information, where he has little difficulty in showing that powerful oligopolies dominate the media, and that advertising is a form of brainwashing that has enormous influence on people’s behaviour. With regard to political freedom, he notes how wealthy most of those who framed the US constitution were, and how dependent political campaigning is on big donations, from such as the Koch brothers.

A more interesting chapter examines ‘power over future generations’, how a terrible legacy is being left: species extinction, global warming, massive pollution. Later generations may lack access to many things taken for granted today, such as adequate fresh air and water, and the benefits of biodiversity. The ability to enjoy nature is a clear example of a positive freedom that may be drastically restricted in future. By the end of this century, for instance, it may well be impossible to live outdoors in summer in much of the Middle East.

In his final chapter, Larson observes correctly that many political parties that call themselves ‘socialist’ simply stand for mild reforms of capitalism. He criticises Lenin for his authoritarianism, and admiringly quotes Anton Pannekoek in support of economic democracy. But his own ideas for a future society are not very clearly explained. He advocates ‘workforce control over production and investment’, with production units interacting by means of ‘free association’. He does not mention the abolition of wage labour, so it can be assumed that there would still be wages and prices in this supposed ‘participatory socialism’.
Paul Bennett

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