What is Freedom? Ruthless Criticism

What is Freedom?

Freedom in theory, economics and politics

There are some values in society and politics that are controversial and violently debated. However, freedom is a value about which everyone is in absolute agreement; it can’t be praised enough – it is sung about in songs and made the subject of films and books … and is important enough to lead to wars. Freedom is a supreme value, seen as positive by everyone. The only criticism of freedom that can be heard is that a certain condition is not a state of true freedom, that the ideal of freedom is not actually realized. Freedom itself is untouched by this kind of criticism.

1. What is freedom?

If you ask people what they understand by freedom, you usually get to hear: “freedom means to be free to do what you want.” However, this is redundant: one does on one’s own anyway only what one has decided for oneself; who else’s will and who else’s purposes should one enact if not one’s own? Now, this statement however does not just mean that one wants to intend to do something, but that one also wants to enact the desire in practice. But this is really already clear – what else should a will be good for than to enact it?

Therefore free will is not a matter of belief (does it exist?), but a fact. Even a slave has one; his free will cannot be taken from him; if he plows the fields, he has decided that he just “prefers” to do this rather than be whipped. On the other hand, a free will also does not mean very much (the slave is certainly not happy when plowing the fields); it only means that you know what you want, are aware of your needs and wishes, can judge them and take the appropriate actions (something that an animal can do less well – it eats as soon as it is hungry, while a human sometimes ignores hunger if he has important things to do or wants to have dinner later with friends).

Freedom cannot therefore refer to one’s own will, to a relationship to one’s self. A recluse on his island does not need freedom; for him the implementation of what he wants is a purely practical question – what does he want and does he have the means for it? Not: may he do what he wants? Is he free?

So freedom is a form of society.

1.1 Praise the rule!

“I want to live free, I want to do what I want.” This is empty and abstract; there is no material content in it. Also the clearer definition – for example, “I want to be free to travel” – never refers to the material implementation of a desire; it does not mean: “I want to fly to Mexico for two weeks in December,” but praises the permission to be allowed to set any country as your destination. One does not refer to whether the will can actually be implemented – that would be a question of the means that one must first have to do it – but praises the mere allowance of the will. But permission is certainly still far from being a guarantee of fulfillment. If it was about realization rather than permission, one would say: “I want to get a car in order to travel” instead of “I want to be free (be allowed) to travel.” It can therefore only be about praising the permission: “I may set myself every possible content of will,” thus praising the authority that grants one this will.

Someone who praises and upholds freedom thus praises a ruling power in the “one may.” Only a person who is subordinated to a ruling power can enjoy freedom at all. But without rule, freedom is not necessary at all; no one would ask, “may I?” So in freedom one is subordinated to a power that allows one to exercise one’s own will – is one really supposed to need an authority over oneself for this?

Freedom must always first be granted by a power – and because the ruling power also can decide not to grant you freedom, the praise of freedom is usually accompanied with the negative comparison to unfree societies (“thank God, how good it is that here I can at least do what I want”). Freedom is thus also a call for people to position themselves in a certain way in relation to the state.

May one then really always do what one wants in a free society?
No, and this is not seen as an objection, but a consequence. Precisely because of freedom, there is the need for barriers to be set by the state to guarantee the freedom of the individual. In the consciousness of the people, freedom and its limits always belong together (except for the anarchists; see below). For freedom one needs limits (and this is also true: to live together with others in society, but to do what you want, how could that work without limits?!), one therefore always gets freedom along with a limit (“the freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of another begins”), and this is also approved by the people. Freedom and its limitations together then define the social relations.

The state guarantees and protects the freedom of the individual – this is seen as if it is a benefit for the people. However, freedom is no service to the people, but is first ordered and prescribed. It is nevertheless also a contradiction: a will should be enacted, and for this reason it must be restricted – only a conditional will is valid, always being measured by whether it is also permitted.

Therefore freedom is the requirement that people who live together in a society, whose actions thus affect one another, should treat everything as a private matter, should pursue only their own wills, as if they were alone, thus indifferent to the interests and needs of others – within the officially fixed limits. Not exactly a reasonable way to live together… but very suitable for capitalist relations. Freedom exists and is only needed in capitalism.

1.2 Freedom is harmful

If one lives alone, freedom is nonsense; one does not need it or have it – look at the hermit. Freedom in society is also not reasonable: if one wants to live together with others, one wants nevertheless not simply to enforce one’s own will (“I want what I want and this should thus apply”) regardless of what others want, but speaks reasonably with others and implements the common interest together. Community is not possible without consideration.

Freedom in a community, thus somebody asserting his will against the others, can be allowed only in connection with rule – either one is himself the ruler (then one’s own will counts de facto, but no other wills count and they are thereby limited in this respect) or the freedom is – together with the limits to the ruthlessness – authorized or prescribed to one by a rule. The claim “I want to be free, my will is to count” is only feasible with force. To make this (freedom) a social principle means to create major conflicts or put them aside. And then of course there is the need for a rule to set limits.

The position of anarchists, who want freedom without a state, is therefore incorrect. Nevertheless, they are the only ones who notice that rule is not useful for their needs, that it limits them (“destroy what destroys you”). However, they have an ideal of freedom, i.e. the current situation is not for them real freedom because of the limitation, so they demand an unlimited freedom without rule (“my desires must count, all barriers are wrong, the world must bend to me”), which is not at all possible – if everyone ruthlessly pursues their own will, they inevitably clash with the people they live together with and who also ruthlessly pursue their wills.

One sees that freedom must be prescribed by a rule from above, otherwise one would not want to live together in freedom. If people can't agree on something common like a community, it would be better for them to go their separate ways, dissolve the community and instead live with other like-minded people. Or they can argue and struggle to resolve the conflicts and try to find solutions for overcoming the conflicts. However, one would never want to voluntarily live in a community in which everybody is granted his freedom so that everyone lives in conflict with everyone else and has to put up with the conflicting wills of others.

Freedom is not reasonable, but harmful!

2. Economic Freedom

What is the practical, concrete content of freedom?

2.1 Freedom to choose a career

In this country, everyone is free to study what they want and to choose the occupation they want; no one prescribes this. However, whether one is then also able to pursue this occupation (i.e., whether one can fulfill the preconditions, such as school exams, tuition fees, etc.) and whether one gets to have a job in this profession is not under one’s control. One is not the subject of one's circumstances.

The problem is not that one is not really free, so that, for example, one is prevented by tuition fees from being truly free to choose his profession. Just the fact that freedom is enforced is harmful. No reasonable planning takes place in which it is determined how many people are needed in which professional guild. Career choice is a private matter for each individual, and unemployment is also his private risk. This means that freedom of career choice is the opposite of a rational arrangement.

At the same time, however, a social division of labor exists, i.e. nobody produces for himself in a subsistence economy, but everyone produces for others. Social production should then also be seen as a social affair, sensibly planned and agreed upon. Instead, everybody works for their own benefit, the social connection is produced through competition and exclusion and is decided by the market. Economic freedom is thus something other than rational planning according to social needs.

Why is economic freedom so highly regarded?
The people appreciate freedom as a condition for their purposes and as a permission to look after their own advancement (regardless of social needs). In the process, they then collide with others who do the same (competition). They confuse the fact that they are permitted with the permission being in their interest. But permission is not the same as means, i.e. just because you have the permission to achieve something you are still a long way from getting what you want.

In terms of the free choice of a career: in an economy in which people must sell their labor power as wage labor in order to obtain a wage and thus to obtain the means of survival, in which they depend on bringing home a wage (and preferably a larger one), in which the compulsion to work comes along as a material constraint (it is not directly ordered, but is made necessary by the social system) – here they appreciate that they are free to choose their job and have the possibility to try to earn as much money as possible. Whether this works out or not, however, is not under their control, this depends on whether they can find someone who will hire them (for their own profit) and assert themselves against the competition of the other wage laborers. Whoever does not manage to do this is unemployed and is just out of luck.

Economic freedom is simultaneously permission (“you may become what you want”) and obligation (“you also have to provide for yourself, its your own risk”). Compulsion in a free society comes along as a material compulsion: one is not forced to work by a superior, but by the necessity of providing for one’s own.

2.2 Free trade

Not only may everybody freely choose their profession, but everybody may also produce what he wants, regardless of what is needed. There are no longer, as in the past, guild restrictions, nor are women excluded from certain occupations.

But somehow its absurd: things are produced for the society, but production is not collectively planned according to social needs, but production is the private matter of the individual entrepreneurs. The social connection between private production and general needs is accidental, it is always discovered only afterwards on the market whether a social need was met, thus whether the products were socially necessary or not, thus if the need for them exists (namely, a solvent need!). If the products are bought, they were necessary (evidently, the social need for them existed); if not, they are superfluous, and their production was therefore pointless.

Do producers then not at all orient production towards social needs, don't they concern themselves about them?
No, production and need are not independent of each other, but the producers use the needs as their means. Something is produced not in order to satisfy a need, but the need is exploited. It is the lever for extortion, by which the goal of doing business is implemented. The weaker the other side (the more urgently someone needs a product), the better for the producer who can then sell the product more advantageously. Exclusion by private property is a prerequisite that means that everyone is fundamentally excluded from the means of satisfying their needs, and all products (and means of production) always belong to the producers; so one cannot simply take what one needs.

The purpose of production is not to satisfy the needs of others, but their predicament is exploited so as to promote one’s own purpose: enrichment. To produce in this way, against each other, to mutually exploit one another, is not rational. The result is overproduction (things are produced by the dozens for which no need exists; food is destroyed – the milk lakes and butter mountains of the EU, etc.) and shortage (people starve in front of full warehouses; many needs are not met because there is no solvent demand for them, i.e. people cannot pay for them).

To establish free production is the appeal that everybody, regardless of social needs, should make this the means to increase their own advantage, which is calculated in money (“grow rich in freedom!”). Then the people stand in economic conflict with each other: one person wants to sell something at an expensive price; the other person wants to buy it for cheap. Everyone should assert himself against the others, so the people lay into each other … quite harmful!

This concerns the production of things for others – but the producer should position himself so that he only produces if he promotes his self-interest and exploits the needs of others for this purpose. Whoever has a lever in hand against the others should use it to increase his private interest. Production is social, but the free producer can exclude all the others from his products and dispose of them as he wants (he may destroy them, if he so wishes, while others starve or urgently need them). He provides things only if they serve his private interest (enrichment) – only for this reason were they at all produced. There is nothing for anybody to consume if a producer can't make a profit out of it. The benefit of the producer is set free; a free producer does nothing for society (otherwise he would not be free), but only pursues what benefits him.

There are free producers only in and for a society (and only make sense there) in which conflicts can be exploited, in which people with their opposing interests are in competition with each other and extort each other in their neediness – that is therefore in capitalism. Economic freedom is the harmful state in which economically conflicting subjects have to hit away at each other.

3. Political freedom

What is political freedom, what is it good for, why does it fit capitalism so well?

In the past, we could not vote (the right to vote was linked to property or social status), nor were there political parties. Nowadays, every adult citizen has the equal, free, universal right to vote in secret and to establish a political party. One is politically free and empowered to vote for whomever one considers suitable. If you do not find anyone suitable, you can even found your own political party.

Political freedom, the freedom to vote and the freedom to establish parties, is conditional from the outset; for example: extremist parties are suppressed or prohibited. These contingencies will not be the subject of discussion here, but rather the positive content of political freedom, what it is and why it is such a good fit for capitalism.

The political interests of the citizens:
If someone criticizes something in this country, if one is not content with the prevailing conditions, people often say that you should just pick another party or just vote the ruling party out of office in the next election. How does a citizen actually come to his political interest?

An economically free citizen has the task of looking after his own private advancement. For this task he needs certain basic conditions that the state establishes. So the state power establishes the preconditions that the people need to get along so that they can advance their own interests. The state therefore acts as the facilitator and guarantor of economic freedom. And then it is also to the state that the people turn in their discontent, according to the idea: “if freedom is my means, I must also be interested in freedom being guaranteed to me.”

The link between economic and political freedom:
Precisely because of the economic freedom in which everyone tries with whatever means he has to exploit the others, people constantly experience their own damage that results from their arranged diverging interests and competition. However, they do not draw the conclusion that a society based on conflicting interests quite fundamentally and systemically harms them, but criticize the conditions set by the state as not adequately arranged for them. They grasp their damage as a deficient authorization of their interest; they think their interests are not sufficiently taken into account.

Demands to validate their special interests:
In their finding that their needs are not met and that over and over again they experience their own damage, the citizens turn critically to the subject of their conditions, the state. They demand that, despite all the conflicting interests, their (special) interest should count (as a mother, a pensioner, a student, etc.), not those of the others. This attitude is doubly stupid: on the one hand, it presumes the harmfulness of the conflicting relations, does not criticize them, does not care about the cause of the damage and thus holds nothing against the continued existence of these conflicts. The main thing is that their own success, their own private interest, can be enforced – against the others!

On the other hand, if they feel their demands are not met, they just direct their demands to the state, which has established the conflicts in the first place.

For example, the single mother:
Why is the situation of a single mother (or father) at all problematic? Where does the demand come from that the politicians should pay more attention to the needs of people in this situation? First of all, it is certainly not a problem to bring up a child alone, and everyone knows that it is less problematic for rich people, but single parents are always linked with poverty as the problem. And also here calls for changes in their situation are directed to the state which has nevertheless set up the situation of single parents in the first place: the entire responsibility for raising children is dumped on the mother, and that means first of all the financial responsibility. Raising children is not addressed as a social task, but is a private matter and therefore the private risk of the parents. It is a risk in that they remain obliged to provide for their own livelihood – and now also for that of the child – even though they actually should devote their time to the upbringing of the child. Especially single mothers are dependent on an income (more than ever by the high financial needs of the child) and have to find a boss who will hire them. On the other hand, bosses have the freedom to determine working hours and terms of employment – regardless of the needs of the mother who must have time for the child. On the contrary: because of the restrictions on her time, the single mother is worse off in the competition and is even better exploitable due to her higher vulnerability to extortion, and therefore possible to hire for cheaper wages.

Political freedom to validate special interests:
If there is political freedom, everyone may be discontent from the standpoint of his economic role and can express this. And this is also done: one pipes up “as a pensioner, as a student…” and claims one’s own special interest, which is in conflict with the others – at their expense. Someone who asserts and justifies his views “as a someone,” thus from a role, does not declare his needs and interests, but has accepted his role and now says that his interest is entitled and should therefore be implemented against the others in accordance with the motto: “I accept my role – but in my role I want more benefit for myself.”

If someone who is set economically free wants to carry out his goals, with whatever means he has, then the offer of political freedom sounds just right to him and he moreover claims this offer.
Then he can vote for precisely the party that offers him the best conditions for his program, to make headway and to pursue his own benefit. As someone politically free he has permission to refer his particular interest to the state and to demand support from it for the pursuit of this interest – against the others.

What is affirmed when you demand “as someone ...”?
In a free society, everyone is free in damages and benefits. And everyone’s own benefit is the damage of the others. “To get more as a student” opposes the others. One champions one’s own role (“Because I am a student, it must also grant me a living”) and one does not desire its dissolution, instead one has nothing against the continuation of the established relations and roles; one only wants to be better off within the role, and precisely on its basis. Someone who makes demands “as a student” has accepted the entire society and its higher education system and their purposes. One's own role and the conflicts between the different roles (landlord-tenant, buyer-seller, worker-boss, student-professor, but also, if and because it is about the distribution of funds, student-pensioner) are accepted instead of gotten rid of. In accepting one’s own role, the roles of others are also accepted. They also have a right to insist on their own particular interests, but one does not give a damn about their needs, one is narrow-minded within the role in whose name one formulates one’s interest in more advantages. Everyone should just see what he is left with in his own role.

The public good:
Why does everyone relativize themselves as being for the public good (“as a farmer,” “as a student,” instead of “I want”)?

Instead of making one's own need the argument, it is always the needs of the whole group that are referred to, the universality of one’s interest. And this is not just hypocrisy, because people think they would get more this way or that it would be more persuasive to the politicians. No, they are not just hypocritical, but championing their role and the established relations.

Political freedom is the ban on putting up with opposing interests and eliminating them once and for all. Instead, everybody should argue within his role and for his particular interest, while the conflicts persist. At the same time, the roles of the others and their right to articulate their interests must be recognized – nobody can come along and say: “I am a student and as such I don't want to pay tuition fees, and if there is no more money left for the pensioners, I don’t give a damn.” With that he would deny the principle of political freedom, that pensioners are also allowed to demand sufficient means of sustenance. Hence, as a student one can argue only in a way that shows understanding for the pensioners and accepts their desire for adequate pensions. But unfortunately, unfortunately, one must persist with one’s own desire for not paying tuition fees because otherwise the nation’s young and therefore the nation's future would be jeopardized … interests are thus argued in a way that the proof of public good must be attended to and also the others are taken into account – in their right to make demands, which is absolutely not the same as the realization of their interests.

This, by the way, also matters for the party leaders and politicians. They cannot come out with the program of self-interest (“elect me, I do not want an airport built in front of my house and I want to prevent it”), but must always argue for the common good. Therefore they also usually rapidly make the – necessary – transition from the party of interests to the people's party. A party that protests against current conditions must eventually decide whether it wants to remain in this protest … or wants to represent the common good and get elected. One sees this, for example, with the Green Party in Germany and their transition from pacifism and ecology to a party that, when it got in power, almost immediately ordered combat missions in Yugoslavia.

Political freedom is the granting of the right to make the effort of transit from your particular interest towards the public good. And this is very useful for capitalist domination.

Political freedom fits and belongs to capitalism; it is only useful for rule there. Because only in capitalism the state sets its people economically free to its own conditions and for their own advantage and mutual damage sets the people loose with the appeal to assert their own interest against that of the others. The state-established social cooperation happens only through the implemention and exercise of conflicting interests, such as the supply of consumer goods only through the competition for purchasing power by competing producers who make use of the needs of consumers to achieve their profits. Because of these systematically established opposing interests, the people are inevitably bound to constant discontent with all their damaged interests. For the articulation of this dissatisfaction, they get with political freedom a sphere of activism in which they should exercise their prescribed right to criticize. They should direct their criticism to the creator of these relations, which causes the constant damage to their interests, that it should nevertheless take more consideration of their particular interests and promote them, but still maintaining the systematic conflicts which thereby become binding and are allowed to continue. This also puts up with the ideology one finds in social science books according to which political freedom "gives everyone the possibility to creatively contribute." To put the conflicting interests up for discussion, to come to agreement and to eliminate the conflicts is indeed something else ...

Political freedom thus only makes sense in capitalism … and political freedom is harmful!